Friday, February 04, 2011

The Study of Placenta

"Did you know the placenta is essentially a parasite?" she said, tapping my paper with her index finger.

I looked up at her, raised my eyebrow and instantly regretted not plucking its middle section that morning, or putting on some makeup at least. She had high Polynesian cheekbones under spiked brown hair, wore pink lip gloss and a North Face fleecy.

"Its effect on a woman’s body is similar to that of cancer," she added.

"Really," I said, but the word got caught in the phlegm of my throat and I coughed it at her.

She squinted and pursed her lips. "Totally," she said.

We’d been sitting side by side in silence since our plane took off two hours earlier. I didn’t even look at her before she spoke. "The Kaili of Central Sulawesi believe the placenta is the elder brother of the child," I said, pointing at the paper I’d been reading on the very subject. "They preserve it in a pot wrapped in white cotton, and hide it under the mother’s sarong. She buries it and the spot is marked with palm trees."

"Well," she said, "Thank God I don’t work with the Kaili of Central Sulawesi. I’d never get the chance to study a placenta if everybody buried them."

I smiled and nodded, wondered if she was perhaps a bit crazy. I hoped so. Crazy women liked me.

"I’m a placental scientist," she said.

I nodded, as if that was only natural, but the revelation shocked me. "Small world," I said. "I study ethnographic interpretations of the placenta."

"Excuse me?"

"Um, I study various indigenous cultures and their treatments of the placenta. What it means to them and what they do with it."

"Fascinating," she said.

I smiled.

"Are any of them aware of its cancerous properties?"

I frowned. "I’ve never encountered any such interpretation."

"Well, it’s the scientific one," she said.

I ran a finger over my lips, trying to look pensive, but it reminded me that they were pale and plain compared to hers.

"The fetus too can be seen as parasitic. And the placenta is the intermediary between woman and fetus, you see? Half her DNA and half its DNA. And together the fetus and placenta live off their host until it finally rejects them, forcing them out."

I considered her argument and slipped into a six-month flashback to Chiapas Mexico, where I shadowed a partera, a traditional Mayan midwife. She was a stout woman but strong and blessed with the confidence of one who has never had to wonder what her life was about or where she belonged.

The community had become somewhat used to white people hanging around asking questions in broken Spanish. She was willing to let me attend births with her as long as I stayed out of her way and kept my mouth shut. But first I had to wrap my head around the complicated spiritual dance of birth, as explained by the partera.

"The biggest problem is when the younger siblings are born and the spirit of the first born tries to eat the spirit of the younger one," she said. "That involves a lot of praying and sometimes we need to sacrifice a chicken and pray with the older child to prevent that from happening. And with all those spirits running around it’s hard on a woman’s body, and it’s a hard change in life for her anyway. The father is happy but for the mother it’s the end of her carefree days.

"But if I do all the right ceremonies and pay attention to the signs and pray before I enter the house and before I touch the woman and pray to every corner and all the guardians, and if I bathe the baby properly and pray before the crib and make sure the children eat properly, and wash their hair properly and sweep and clean the room before I leave and pray again, then it comes out OK."

I shared this story with the placental scientist sitting next to me. She frowned at me, the downward movement of her lips shining in the fluorescent lights. "You know a very small percentage of fetuses are actually born. Most women have miscarriages early in pregnancy without even knowing it."

I smiled. "Maybe we aren’t praying enough anymore."

"Right," she said. "Try telling that to my sister. She’s had three miscarriages, that she knows of, and is about ready to kill herself because she wants to be a mom so bad. She prays for it every ten minutes."

I turned away from her, looked out the window at the clouds. "I guess your sister’s not a partera," I said. When I turned back she had put her headphones on and closed her eyes. I ran a finger across my unibrow, relieved I hadn’t bothered to pluck it.

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