My first son Carter was born in a small rural community on the flat, sage-covered plains of eastern Montana, in the local hospital during a blizzard. The birth was all the things most first births are: terrifying and exhilarating and overwhelming and deeply humbling.
Almost instantly I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about anything, and I tried to begin paying better attention to women who were already mothers. One of them, a nurse, told me that when my baby lost the stump of his umbilical cord, I should save it. In the spring, I should plant it in the earth, so that my son would feel grounded, and always be able to find his way home.
Well, I didn’t. We moved, returning to the mountains in the western part of the state, and I was relieved I hadn’t planted my son’s future in a place we’d left. Instead, I kept the cord folded in a white kleenex tucked in my sock drawer.
Three years passed, and I forgot about the whole idea until the twins were born. They came seven weeks early and stayed in the NICU, which was where their umbilical cords came off–one day they were there; the next, gone. This worried me tremendously; everything was so different than my first birth, and now I’d lost the belly buttons.
I held the babies and cried a little, rocking and singing and thinking about all the things I was missing, and the sadness seemed almost unbearable. I asked a nurse if they might be found. She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
When I got home from the hospital, there was a message on the answering machine. It was from the nurse in the NICU. She’d retrieved the cords, and would leave them at the front desk for me. I picked them up the next day, each labeled and stored safely in a clean, plastic urine-sample cup.
Three more years passed. I still have the cords; two in cups and one wrapped in white kleenex. We’ve lived in this same house the whole time; it’s the only home Carter remembers, it’s the only home the twins have ever known. Tom has written two books here, I’ve written one and almost another. This land, this place has been good to us. If this isn’t home, what is?
I could plant the cords in the garden when the spring thaw loosens the soil, or I could scrape away the pine needles beneath the big tree the boys love to climb, or I could dig a little hole beneath the mock cherry that shades their room. All these choices, and yet, I hesitate.
I don’t want our sons to belong to a place, or even to me. I want them to belong to themselves. I think when they are big enough to understand, I will return the cords. I will give each boy to himself, and let him make of it what he will.