How you were born

· Long Read Remembering Here&Now

Deva tells the story to his little daughter, from his memoir, The Pieces of My Heart.

Deva and Gyana

Jnana (pronounced ‘Yana’) was born on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1971. We are living on Maui now and are getting ready to move to Pune to live at the Rajneesh Ashram, where she will become Gyana and we will both grow up.

But today, we are driving out the Old Hana Highway in my ’67 Volkswagen bus with the bed in the middle for me and a little one in the back for Jnana. We’re going to a party at our friends David and Heather’s house way up in the hills overlooking Hana Bay and Kaihalulu Beach. We’ll play music, there’ll be dancing, tons of food, friends from all over the island and lots of kids. We’ll sleep in our van for the night, but for now there’s a few hours on a tortuous, rutted two-lane coast road to negotiate and Jnana is chattering away while I’m gritting my teeth. We both need to relax.

“Tell me a story, Daddy,” she says.

Not a bad idea, to while away the hours.

“What story do you want?” I ask.

“Tell me how I was born,” she says.

“You’re kidding,” I say. “That story again? I’ve told you that one about a hundred times already!”

“I know, but I like it. I want to hear it again.”

“I could tell you another story that’s just as good?”

“No, I want to hear that one!”

“OK, OK,” I soothe. And so I begin…

Each day Sandy and I woke up early and drove up and down the Hamakua coast, between Hilo and Waimea, exploring every overgrown path, sleeping in sugar cane fields at night and continuing on the next day, like Carlos Castaneda, searching for our place. We had been on the Big Island of Hawaii for more than a year and were ready for our own place. About a month before Sandy would give birth, we found it.

It was high on the mountain overlooking the tiny ghost town of Honokaa: a 20-acre macadamia farm that looked abandoned. The road to the house was so overgrown, the jeep had to plow a trail through the jungle to get into the property. It could have led nowhere like many before but I drove on and on, intuitively feeling there was something waiting for us here. The path finally opened into a clearing, framing a large, single-walled cane worker’s house up on stilts and a bath house next to it with a Japanese furo tub. The wide, whitewashed boards of the house sparkled in the sun, with fruit trees, bamboo, Hawaiian ti plants in profusion around it. It took our breaths away. Obviously, no one had lived here for a long time. We gingerly explored the old house and immediate surroundings. Even some of the old furniture was still in place, the screened cupboards to keep fruit flies off the food, an ancient sink and fridge, an outhouse! We walked around, touching things and hearing the echoes of former occupants.

Below the house spread magnificent groves of macadamia trees, 400 in all, but otherwise the land had for many years been left to its natural progression. We were ecstatic, enchanted, and I knew we were meant to find a way to have this place, but it better be soon, as time was running out before the baby came. There were no signs or any other way to know who owned the property, or even if they were still alive. We drove around, asking the few sparse inhabitants on the mountain if they knew the original owners. We finally ran into an old Hawaiian man who had grown up there and we learned the place was owned by a Japanese couple, long retired and now living in Hilo. We rushed to Hilo and miraculously found Teruo Yoshida and his tiny wife in a modest tract house filled with Shinto religious icons and Japanese knickknacks.

When they opened the door, we must have been a sight. Two long-haired scarecrows, one 7 months pregnant, holding hands, smiles beaming to outshine the sun. Sandy’s hair fell straight and heavy to her waist, mine more the wild hippie look. Even after many years working the cane fields and raising a family in Hawaii, the couple spoke very little English – but to their credit and our everlasting gratitude, they politely invited us in. We sat in their living room eating cookies and drinking tea, and we stated our case. We wanted to rent their place in Honokaa to raise our baby.

They looked at each other and at us, incredulous that anyone would want to live out there. Their own children, who had grown up there, wanted nothing to do with the place and had left the Island. There was only an outhouse, no phone, a tortuous long road. It was cold in the winter. The house needed repair. Could we possibly mean this? Oh yes, we were sure this was perfect for us. I spoke passionately of how I would repair and rejuvenate the house and land. We told them we wanted our baby to come into the world organically, surrounded by friends and the sounds of nature – and I saw Mrs. Yoshida’s eyes begin to tear, no doubt recalling her own deliveries in that house. The Yoshidas were simple goodness personified and were lonely for their family, now widely dispersed. I promised fervently to honor their home and the past they had had. They apologetically left the room to discuss our proposal, as conferring about our offer between themselves, even in a language we didn’t understand, would have been impolite. They returned and offered to us the house and home they had built with their hearts and their hands – for $30 a month. It was a pittance, even in those times.

We left in highly elevated spirits. We could hardly keep from screaming, we were so excited. We sat for a moment in the Jeep, our hearts pounding. It was done. The search was ended and it was ours. We couldn’t believe our luck, not realizing the best and the worst were yet to come.

In Hilo we bought some cleaning supplies and immediately took the winding 3-hour drive back to Honokaa and up the mountain to our new home.

That evening, standing on the broad front porch, we surveyed the mountainside stretching for miles, over macadamia groves and waving fields of cane to the sea, wide and endless, the jungle spilling onto the beach and into the waves. The silence was faultless, broken only by squeaks and calls of small animals and birds. We slept there one more night in our Jeep and then over the next couple of weeks we moved in. We sorted through the antiques that were lying everywhere, keeping what we could use and stashing the rest under the elevated house. We scrubbed everything, painted the walls, fixed the corrugated tin roof, got the traditional Japanese furo bath working and spent many hours soaking in the redwood tub while our yams and broccoli baked for dinner in the fire below.

Furos are ancient Japanese baths, square, thick wooden tubs with copper sheet bottoms so you can set them over a fire pit and burn wood to heat them. Teruo showed me how to fix the old tub using string and the condensed residue left in old lead-based paint cans to seal the bottom and the cracks. He also loaned me his old Jeep flatbed truck to do our hauling. In spite of our language barrier, the fatherless son and aging father respectfully bonded in this place of mutual meaning.

The old couple would come out every weekend when the macadamias were dropping to gather and bag the precious crop. The original Hamakua Sugar Cane Company, which had brought Teruo and his fellow workers from Japan years ago, had thoughtfully introduced macadamia nuts to Hawaii, making it the world’s largest commercial producer. Mac nuts grow at higher elevations in the rich volcanic soil than cane, and grazing grasses will grow above that. And so, from cane to nuts to cattle, Hawaii was tamed. But as the sugar cane industry migrated to other, cheaper countries, the Hawaiian cane companies sold off exhausted land in large parcels to whomsoever would buy. Many visiting workers, having spent all their productive years on the Islands, finally surrendered and put roots down in these plantation communities.

As I explored the land, I was shocked to discover it was an extraordinary Garden of Eden. Teruo had spent 60 industrious years preparing the earth to support his family in the hopes that they would all stay together, but his children went off to college and would not return to the meager cane worker’s house where they were born. He had nurtured everything they would have needed to be self-sufficient. He’d divided the land into three large, cleared fields, the macadamia trees neatly laid out in rows with plenty of room for the falling nuts to be gathered below. Between the fields he’d left swaths of uncultivated jungle with huge banana groves always yielding a few 4- and 5-foot stalks, bursting with outstretched hands, “finger bananas” as they were known, ready to ripen on the front porch. Local liliquoi vines grew everywhere, blanketing the ground with sweet purple passionfruit, and behind the house he’d planted a small grove of special Japanese Hachiya persimmons, pure sugar when soft and ripe.

West of the house, in a damp canyon, a stand of 80-foot local avocado trees soared skyward from the shadows. Teruo had planted them in rotation so every month at least one tree would go off, giving us more enormous fruit all year round than we could ever find a use for. This was my special place on the land, of which I have subsequently often dreamed. I loved disappearing into this grove, feeling invisible in my special paradise and enveloped in its bounty. Sometimes Sandy and I would rub avocado all over our bodies and imagine we were having expensive skin treatments in a New York or Paris spa.

Next to the house was a large bamboo grove. We would eventually learn to pick the new bamboo shoots and prepare them as food, boiling them numerous times to draw out poisons the plant uses to keep grazers away, and which also keeps the 6-inch-plus diameter poles free of boring creatures when they are used as a building material. The prepared young shoots become succulent and smooth, a perfect food.

Mangos, of course, grew everywhere and left a perfume of sweet decay wafting over the whole mountainside. And there were the macadamia nuts. We would collect them in an old burlap sack each morning and sit with hammers, balancing each nut on a stone anvil and cracking the rock-hard shells to get at the nutritious meat for our breakfast. As the Japanese and Hawaiians before us had done, we wore out many stones with this process.

So, within this verdant tapestry we prepared to have our child. We had decided to have a do-it-yourself home birth. Sandy hadn’t been having regular checkups with a doctor but we had been monitoring her progress with the help of our friend, the chiropractor / naturopath, Carl Correlli. In spite of our efforts to keep clean and healthy, in her 5th month, before we had even found our nest, Sandy had contracted infectious hepatitis (hep A). She had had to be isolated so as not to spread it around the 4th World commune in Hilo in which we were living, and she lay in bed, week after week, jaundiced and too anemic to move or eat. I tended to her, cajoling her to swallow soups and things she could keep down. There is no quick cure for this type of hep so we just waited it out, hoping the fetus would draw what little nutrients there were, fearful of what the consequences might be.

Eventually the illness passed, leaving Sandy frail but with her normal color and energy slowly returning, and so we had resumed our search for our own place and had finally arrived in Honokaa with providential timing.

During the last few weeks of Sandy’s pregnancy we worked on the house feverishly, occasionally driving back to Hilo for cleaning and building supplies or food. We’d work all day and take the long drive in the evening, stay at a friend’s and buy our supplies the next morning. This night we were so exhausted I was afraid I’d run off the road which in places ran high over the sea cliffs – so we pulled off into one of the cane fields that ringed the island. The 10-foot-high stalks, dense and waving, engulfed us and hid us from sight, and we bedded down for the night in the back of the long-bodied jeep.

We had been preparing in our own way for months, taking Lamaze classes, reading books on childbirth and the finer points of home delivery, figuring out what environment would be most perfect for our newborn’s first encounter with the world. We’d wanted a home birth from the beginning and both Sandy and I had figured there was no reason we couldn’t do it ourselves. This morning, at about 5:00, before the sun had even risen, Sandy nudged me. “I’m all wet. I think my water broke.” It was 5 or 6 weeks earlier than we had expected – but the bedding in the back of the jeep was definitely soaked. We were halfway between Honokaa and Hilo so we decided to make a run for Hilo and a friend’s house for the birth. I went into DEFCON ONE mode while Sandy sat nervously beside me as we peeled down the ring road.

We tore into Hilo around 7:00 in the morning, swung by the little Japanese market to pick up a bag of sweet local oranges, then up the mountain to Greta’s. A tall, blond Scandinavian girl, a little older than we were, she had a nice clean house and a calm, reassuring manner. We arrived at her door with our bag of oranges and our story and she immediately started clearing and preparing things in her spare bedroom. Sandy’s contractions had started. We hit the shower and then I stood on the back porch, nervous and trying to find my center while Greta helped Sandy lie down on clean sheets.

I had read every book on the island about childbirth. My technical mind had absorbed it all and I felt, with the bravado of youth, pretty confident I could pull it off. But I see now that there was one area in which I was ill prepared – to give Sandy the tender nurturing she needed and deserved at that moment. Just below the surface, I was wound up tight, worrying about my competence. I couldn’t slow down to play both roles at one time. It had been providential to come to Greta’s for the birth. The responsibility of the moment lay heavily on me and while I retracted into my solitary place, searching for the intuition that would guide me to be able to prevail, Greta’s powerful femininity completed the timeless circle. Soon the room fell into a balance – Sandy finding harmony with her breathing and contractions, Greta keeping hot water and clean towels at hand, wiping Sandy’s brow, talking quietly with her in timeless female fashion, and me watching over the scene, timing contractions, measuring dilation, urging her to push when she was ready.

This was the finale of the last eight months of our lives. I’d never seen a live birth before, even in a movie (this was 1971, on an isolated island) and yet, here I was, a former dope dealer and handyman, playing ‘doctor’. In a few minutes, it would all be in my hands. I was responsible for the welfare of two lives. If something went horribly wrong, I would have to improvise and pull them through – and live with the consequences. I would soon conduct the greatest symphony of my career. And I would also find a meaning in life – of which I had never dreamed.

Sandy’s final stages of labor were intense but not too long-lasting. Three hours later our daughter was born. Her head peered out first, and thank the powers that be, it was in the right position. I breathed a sigh of relief. Without prenatal exams, we hadn’t been sure about our baby’s placement in the womb. A breech birth at home could be dangerous. But before the rest of her body was even delivered, she gave a titanic wail as if to say “OK, I’m healthy and everything’s functioning. Now get me out of here!” However, as she continued to present, I saw something wasn’t right, and my chest tightened. The umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around her neck, pulling even tighter as she inched through the birth canal. My long hours of research and visualization kicked in. I can’t recall any conscious thought process being involved. Instinctively I slipped my fingers under the cord and swooped it off, just as I’d read in the books, before it could start to strangle her. It gave like a huge, slippery rubber band. Now the shoulders and body came swiftly out. She looked fine – no blueness to suggest she’d been struggling for air. I fervently hoped the cord had been loose enough while she had been growing in the womb that there would be no lingering effects.

Talk about a way to bring you into the moment! Delivering our child made time stand still in that little house. We were all lightheaded after hours of unison breathing and being with Sandy during each contraction. I held the diminutive human in my hands and felt her take her first solo breaths. The whole thing seemed as natural as the sunrise that had set the cottage aglow while we had played our part in the evolution of man. I felt an unexpected lump in my chest and a stinging in my eyes. After a few minutes I clipped the umbilical cord, cleaned the little mucus there was from her mouth and eyes and lay her on her mother’s breast.

We hadn’t done any medical exams so we hadn’t known whether the baby would be a girl or a boy – but now we knew. We hadn’t even chosen a name yet, so on her birth certificate, issued later by a doctor friend, Jnana would be “Baby Girl” Gerson for her first year.

While the baby suckled and the mother rested, I drifted out to the living room, my work done for now. Levitating slightly, I picked up my guitar which I had somehow brought with me and wrote my first song –

“Oh, little mouse, I love you
In this little house, I love you…”

While Sandy slept, I buried the placenta at the base of a small stand of bananas behind Greta’s house, to honor the traditions of Hawaii and to express my gratitude to the earth for our fertility.

As we pull into Hana, I say to Jnana, “So, that’s how it happened, kiddo. What do you think of that?”

I look over and she’s fast asleep, curled in the seat next to me. It works every time.


Deva (David Goldberg) is a musician, writer, website developer, graphic designer and photographer, based in Santa Fe.

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