RACHEL Draft #9A

Steve & Anita KitchenRACHEL       Draft #10A

by Peter Bettendorff   ©2015


We begin with a scene from an award-winning independent film. Released in 2001, the clip portrays a couple who lost a child in 1979. They communicate how a third-party intervened to reduce their suffering. It’s a poignant story, about six minutes in length. To absorb the emotional nuance and subtle detail of the soundtrack, listening with headphones is suggested.

While the storyteller speaks, a door within the fire creaks, 

Suddenly flies open, and a girl is standing there… 

(Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead)


(Youtube search words: Steve, Anita, Isser, Ram Dass)


Dr. Richard Alpert was an eminent Harvard psychologist. During the early sixties, alongside Timothy Leary, he pioneered psychedelic research. As a result of those activities, Dr. Alpert became the first tenured professor of the last century to be fired.

Continuing his research, he embarked on a spiritual quest. During a trip to India in 1967, he met a holy man whose followers called Maharaj-ji. It was Neem Karoli Baba. The western-trained academic begged for his guidance, realizing he was in the presence of a true master. In response, Maharaj-ji gave him the name, Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.”

Neem Karoli Baba also tasked him with a specific objective, publishing a book, while declaring there would be no compromise in the undertaking. Upon his return to the United States, Dr. Alpert compiled a contemporary guide for spiritual awakening, as he’d been instructed by his teacher.

For the psychedelic generation, Be Here Now was their Bible. In print continuously since 1971, millions of copies have sold worldwide.

Having fulfilled his guru’s instructions, Ram Dass continued his path, walking his name with an Eastern twist, in the West, as servant of God.

In that capacity, he acted with compassion towards those troubled or afflicted by the vicissitudes of life. One example is this story. After learning of the death of their child, Ram Dass took it upon himself to contact the family. What he wrote to the bereaved parents was shared by them, in their interview.

There’s more to the story, of course. Films are edited from raw footage. What ends up on the cutting room floor is a mystery. Nor is there any hint of what took place while the camera wasn’t rolling. This view reveals that perspective, the one you wouldn’t ever know about otherwise.

Granted, the story takes you off the beaten path. Richard Alpert/Ram Dass aren’t household names. Nor is Neem Karoli Baba or Maharaj-ji. In America, Dr. Alpert’s life story borders on the outlandish. Traveling to India, finding a guru, and taking on the attitude of an Eastern holy man is right up there with being eaten by cannibals in New Guinea. It’s definitely not mainstream.

As the author of Be Here Now, Ram Dass found himself in the limelight. He continued, following the principles and values ascribed by Maharaj-ji, for the next eighteen years. Then something happened. Afterward, he became dead serious about completing his work.

Ram Dass had promised to participate in a biographical film. However, he didn’t say when. “Not yet,” he would tell the frustrated filmmaker, as years went by. In February of 1997, Ram Dass suffered a near-fatal stroke. The insult left him crippled, confined to a wheelchair with severe physical discomfort in the aftermath.

Faced with unknowns, the filmmaker posed the question, “if not now, when?” Despite being in a wheelchair, he kept his promise, knowing it wouldn’t be easy. Production began the following year. During the shooting schedule, the parents Ram Dass had interceded with agreed to be interviewed for the film.

In 2001, the completed picture, Fierce Grace, was screened at the 24th annual Mill Valley Film Festival. It received thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Afterward, the audience gave a second standing ovation, for another reason. And then the scene faded to black.

Fourteen years later, in 2015, the couple who agreed to be in the film were paid a visit by someone they weren’t expecting…

So begins our story…



It was on a Friday, during the last week of December, with just a few days left on the calendar for 1979. Earlier that year, a partial nuclear meltdown had occurred at Three Mile Island. The Iran hostage crisis was underway. According to the newspaper headlines, the Soviets had begun an invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve. A few days later, something really terrible would happen.

Despite the world news, it had been a peaceful afternoon locally, except for one thing. An eleven-year-old girl named Rachel had been the victim of a crime. The incident occurred within walking distance of her home. She and her parents, along with her two little brothers, lived in the tranquil hamlet of Ashland. It was a small town situated in the rolling hills of Southern Oregon, about fifteen miles north of the California border.

Ashland was a place known for Shakespeare festivals, along with having three seasonal runs of migratory salmon and steelhead in the nearby river. Caught on brightly colored chenille flies, the spawning runs were the stuff of legends. Anglers would line up along the river banks, elbow to elbow, plying their trade. Like clockwork, several times a year, the salmonids threaded their way towards their ancestral home, returning to the tributary streams feeding the Rogue River. The fish would die there, immediately after procreating.

On the whole, Ashland was a wholesome and natural place, with a pastoral feel about the countryside, except for the brutal murder of Rachel. That changed things. It was a calamitous development. The tragedy involved a second victim. The other child was a friend of Rachel’s, a kid from another school. The two girls had met through religious studies. Bonding over their common Jewish faith, and being genuinely companionable, they always looked forward to seeing each other.

The lives of both girls were taken by the same killer. The horrific nature of the crime turned things sideways, for the small town in a rural area. Their sense of security, previously taken for granted, had just dissolved. It left behind a residue of fear, blanketing the town with a heartbreaking sadness.

The illusion of safety had been shattered, in a day. It goes without saying that Rachel’s mom and dad were wholly devastated by the loss, just as any parents would be. They’d moved there, from the San Francisco Bay Area, seeking a more wholesome place to raise their three kids.

Ashland had seemed like a safe place for families. The town turned out to be exactly what they were hoping for, up until their daughter was murdered there. By then, it was too late. An evil wind had blown through the bucolic village. With no rhyme nor reason, innocent children had been slain, swept up and taken.

Chronologically, had she lived, Rachel would be around forty-seven years old, at the time this story is being written, in the fall of 2015. According to her parents, their daughter was a cheerful youth; a joyful ray of sunshine. Their photo album, filled with pictures of the little girl, showed her progression and growth. The images support their comments. Rachel smiled a lot, with good reason. Her parents loved her unconditionally.

Those family photos, courtesy of Eastman Kodak, show a youngster with a kind expression on her face. In her brown eyes was the glint of intelligence. Coltish, with braces, the long-haired lass was a sweet kid, a happy slip of a girl, moving towards young ladyhood. It made her mom and dad happy, beyond measure, having Rachel as their daughter.

The pregnancy had been the element which brought them together, as a young couple. Rachel was symbolic of their commitment to one another, along with the love they shared. She represented the future too. Losing her brought them to their knees. They found themselves begging for mercy, at the absolute nadir of misery, having arrived there while still accelerating. It had only taken seconds before they’d crashed into the firmament, with parts scattered everywhere. Airbags hadn’t been invented yet.

Inarguably, losing a child gives birth to a black hole. The collapsed star left behind suddenly becomes a painful vacuum. The grief creates an enormous emptiness in the soul, like nothing else can. For a parent preceded in death by their own child, there’s nothing sadder. Sadness wrapped its arms around Rachel’s mother and father. They existed in a chasm of emotional blackness, in the wake of their daughter’s death. Filled with a vast and desolate sorrow, they found themselves imprisoned, with no will to go on. The couple was stuck in a hollow place, with no answers, where help could not reach.

A cold, sterile wind blew, amongst the dark shadows, kicking up dust and reminding them why they were there. It was a relentless, tormenting ache. Rachel had been torn away. She was gone, forever. The loss was unbearable. A column of grief crushed their hopes, threatening their sanity. A person they loved with every fiber of their being suddenly vanished, gone from real to being only a memory. It was devastating, for the two young parents. Their situation was dire.

Over and over again, the sad realization battered away at their sense of denial, overpowering their defense mechanisms. Harlequins, dispatched from the devil, were taking target practice outside. Stones hurled from their unrelenting trebuchets pounded the crenels, weakening the battlements of the fort, with no hint of mercy or terms of capitulation being offered.

All the color had run out of their picture. Left behind was a latticework dulled with inconsolable shades of gray. The blank structure now stood where their happiness had been earlier, as a withering composition of ruined meaning, slowly decomposing into dust. The death of their child left them understandably debilitated, on so many levels. They teetered on the edge of oblivion, helplessly, while facing utter ruin. It was awful.

They were trapped, beside themselves with sadness and feeling just dead inside, at the bottom of a dark pit, with no way out. Rachel’s death incurred an unimaginable shock, for the young couple that came of age during the Summer of Love. Grief emotionally crippled the pair. They were decimated, shattered, with two little boys still to raise. Their situation was bleak. With no idea of what to do, or where to turn, how could they go on?

The murder had been utterly catastrophic. The grim reaping had come  completely out of the blue, senseless and entirely unexpected. The killer was apprehended, shortly after committing the heinous crime. When asked why he did it, he replied “I wish I knew. I keep asking myself that very same question.” There were no answers. The crime had been the first of its type in the State of Oregon, according to the police authorities. It had been an especially disturbing development, for everyone.

Nobody was prepared to cope with the psychological issues related to a tragedy  involving children. A certain innocence had been violated, leaving everyone traumatized afterward. In the eye of the storm were the parents of the two girls. That included the Isser’s, Rachel’s mom and dad, a young couple around thirty years old.

Chronologically, Rachel’s murder preceded the Polly Klass case by fourteen years. The details of the crime involving Rachel spooked the community of Ashland, along with the surrounding area. The same thing occurred with the population dwelling in the sleepy town of Petaluma, in Northern California, where twelve-year-old Polly had lived. The unthinkable had taken place there, just like in Ashland. It begged the question; was it even possible for anyone to mentally prepare, in advance, for that sort of contingency?

Understandably, Ashland wasn’t in any position to cope either, with something so heartbreakingly sad as what happened to Rachel, her friend, and their families. The highly disturbing circumstances left the normally secure and relaxed community rather tense, even after the murderer was apprehended. Parents still dropped off and picked up their kids at school, rather than allowing them to walk home unescorted. And children found themselves with parents helicoptering around them for activities as mundane as getting a cheeseburger or just walking over to a friend’s house to play.

In the midst of a community set on edge, the bereaved parents were foundering, stricken with grief. Caught in a fog, they were unsure of their future, uncertain if they even had one to look forward to. Mired down in a landscape of desolation, the two circled listlessly. It was one dead end after another. Aimlessly, they stumbled. Lost within a maze of pain and confusion, they remained trapped in the dark, alone, with no exit anywhere to be found.

When things just couldn’t seem any bleaker, with their dreams and hopes for the future dashed and completely obscured from view, something quite unusual  arrived in their mailbox. According to the return address on the item, it had been mailed by Ram Dass. They hadn’t been expecting anything from him. What could it be?

Enclosed within the envelope was a lifeline. It communicated something deeply personal, harboring a message especially meaningful to them, as they struggled to cope. Expressing from the heart of understanding, his words made it through. What he composed for them reached the isolated place where they were stuck; hopelessly marooned. Like a note in a bottle found washed up on the beach of a desert island, the letter offered hope to the survivors of the shipwreck.

Upon learning of their horrible situation, the former Harvard University professor had composed an insightful and sensitive essay; a vital communique. Worded especially for them, the telegram fit their predicament precisely. By conveying meaningful truths, ones which applied to their circumstances, he connected with the young couple. He related, heart to heart, penetrating to the nucleus of their suffering, in so many words. With diminished hopes, they had all but given up. That’s when Ram Dass’s letter reached them.

The words on the sheet of paper were full of compassion. The sentences contained a certain wisdom too. Ram Dass expressed a deep caring, along with supplying an encrypted message of great sensitivity. It was one they could both understand, in their traumatized state and wounded condition. He showed them the light, gently reminding how it was still there. The letter pointed out the path, showing a direction for them to follow. They took his instructions to heart, with nothing left to lose.

Somehow, the open and loving gesture helped Steve & Anita transcend their suffering. They passed through, after enduring the terrible flames and savage  fires of purification, exiting with their souls still intact, remarkably. Implementing the ideas and thoughts shared in the letter, they made an exit from the dark cloud of wretched sorrow holding them captive. Just as Persephone slipped away from Hades, they departed from the underworld. Crawling out, on their hands and knees, with the worst behind them, they returned to the light and resumed living their lives.

The gesture enabled the young couple to go on, afterward, despite what had happened. Their transition began, perhaps as soon as they read the letter. But there was still more to do. So they continued working with the ideas contained within the note. It was that choice, in their words, which made all the difference. It had boiled down to the kindness of a stranger, and a saving grace, the single-page document they received from Ram Dass.

Twenty years later, the couple shared openly about Rachel, along with what the letter had meant to them. They appeared on camera together, in the 2001 feature release titled FIERCE GRACE. The 16mm film biopic tells the story about how a Jewish guy named Richard Alpert got to be Ram Dass. It’s an excellent film, incidentally, if you haven’t seen it.

One step along his way included reaching out to the grieving parents as they lie wounded in the wake of the tragedy. His gesture was profound, we now understand. What Ram Dass did helped them escape from a quagmire of emotional quicksand. It had been a sticky morass. They’d been detained there, until receiving the letter. The act of writing an in-depth personal message to the bereaved parents had made a significant difference in their lives.

The letter itself is a tear stained document showing  spots where the ink has run from sorrow. It was written by hand, on vellum stock stationery with a preprinted letterhead. They handled it with reverence, unfolding it gently, after removing the vital correspondence from within the same envelope it had originally been sent. The piece of mail had arrived unexpectedly, all those years before, during the darkest of times. It turned out to be a beacon of hope, for the two lost souls, back in 1979.

At the time, unbeknownst to them, they were holding the instructions for executing a self-rescue maneuver. It was the key to the massive iron door, the one  standing between them and the comfort which might lead to becoming whole again someday, a single sheet of paper.

In the decades since, the note had taken on a much greater significance, while tucked away safely in a drawer upstairs, stored in the place where their treasured mementos were kept. Unbeknownst to them, the scrap of parchment had become a living document. In the fullness of time, the sheet of paper had solidified into rock. Now it was both milestone and touchstone, with the gravitas of granite. In that regard, they didn’t quite realize exactly what might be waiting for them inside the envelope, prior to the interview.

Their decision to bravely revisit the past involved opening a seam. They pried loose a heavy stone. It had been placed there, in front of the crevice, to prevent egress. Now their conscious awareness could access their memory banks unimpeded, going where the past lie stratified in layers. Gliding through the spiral pathway, they tread into the darkness. Past residual pain and suffering remained lying still and dormant there. Reaching for the inner places normally circumvented by the practical mind, they rationally went face to face with their traumatic memories, courage in hand.

Rachel had been dead for about two decades, when they carefully extracted the document from the original envelope and began reading it in front of the camera for our film. As one would imagine, it was an emotional journey for them. As it turned out, it would be a bittersweet excursion. We began filming.

Just like any father would react, Rachel’s dad choked up as he recounted the moments from the day he’d last seen his daughter alive. Steve spoke with a certain finality, as if the scene had played out in his mind over ten-thousand times. It had. His daughter flashed a big smile at her daddy, before leaving to meet her friend to play tennis. And that was the last time her father ever saw Rachel alive. Steve’s facial expression said it all. He looked numb, as if his heart had just been torn out again.

Nobody would be surprised to learn that Anita was moved to tears. Of course, Rachel’s mommy cried. Their vulnerability was captivating, a portrayal of dignity within the human spirit. As the film rolled, turning through the pin-registered gate inside the French made Eclair ACL Cine camera at precisely twenty-four frames per second, we could tell. Magic was playing out. Before the lens was a gripping human drama, elemental, powerful beyond words.

They’d just shared the most painful agony imaginable. In reviewing what they had endured and survived, we’d been entrusted with their personal story. It didn’t hurt that our director’s filmography included a film about the Dalai Lama, I suppose. In fact, Mickey was on a first name basis with Tenzin Gyatso, also known as His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

As a trio of filmmakers, we came with a high degree of social sensitivity, along with the expertise and competency to make a complicated activity appear rather smooth and offhandedly natural. That set the stage for them to relate their inner emotions to the camera, with us there watching and listening.

Being a documentarian involves skillfully inviting the narrative to come out where it can be recorded for posterity. Their past had been lying there still, quiescent for all this time, like a dragon slumbering atop a mound of treasure. We summoned it forth, as delicately as we could, to record their experience of losing their firstborn child. Now they were voluntarily revisiting the death of Rachel. It had been the most painful experience of their entire lives together, as a couple.

With regard to the scene in the film, it was cinematically moving. It turned out beautifully. Although they had lost a child, twenty years had elapsed in the meantime. Both of their sons had grown up, inside the inviting two-story Victorian home. Much had changed. A lot of water had gone under the bridge.

Their family had been able to survive, fortunately. Resurrecting their will and continuing with their lives somehow, they endured. As daunting as it had been, the couple managed to achieve the necessary state of grace required for resuming their routines amongst the living. That was a miracle for them, back then, twenty years ago.

Now that they were in the future, Rachel still dwelled in their hearts. She was there, just the way they’d known her, as the little girl she had once been and forever would always remain. In the meantime, a merciful cushion had developed, between them and the daunting wall of overwhelming grief they had once been engulfed by.

As they read the letter, it occurred to me how Rachel would have been an adult by now, had she lived. She would be thirty-one-years old, approximately the same age her parents were when she died. No doubt, grandchildren most certainly would have graced their lives by now, except for the death of their daughter.

The absence of the next generation seemed sadly incongruous, with the warm and friendly people in front of the camera. The unfairness of the hand they’d been dealt was palpable, to my senses. Yet they’d somehow managed to navigate their loss, despite the magnitude of their wounds.

I found myself empathizing deeply, in concert with them, as they told their story. They recounted the abject emotional conditions they faced in the past, in a calm, courageous manner. Displaying emotionality as they spoke, their voices quavered. Their pain was unmistakable, as they recalled memories from a darker time, appearing crushed and tender. It had been a period when loss prevailed, stalking them like prey. Their equanimity had been vanquished, leaving them lost to themselves; the walking dead.

Coincidentally, their shell-shocked emotional state was something I’d observed  before, in others. Working as a freelance journalist, with assignments coming from the three national networks, I’d seen quite a lot. For example, from the time Polly Klaas was kidnaped, to the discovery of the body a few months later, we were there. For a time, it seemed like I lived in Petaluma, spending days on end stationed at the media headquarters, while covering the ongoing drama of the kidnapped twelve-year-old girl.

As one might imagine, a level of familiarity with Polly’s parents developed. Their pain was monumental. Even a blind man could see how badly it hurt them. From sheer agony to an aching emotional exhaustion, it never let up, remaining a familiar and ongoing constant. Of the torment and suffering parents faced with tragic, unexpected loss incur, there was some  inkling on my part, as a result.

Interfacing with Polly’s mom and dad, as a news gatherer, instilled me with a certain sensitivity towards people in their situation. Being in their proximity engendered an awareness, a sense of what they must be going through. That knowledge resided behind a veneer of professionalism, invisible to perhaps everyone except a handful of people.

As Rachel’s parents spoke, I followed their words closely, empathetically, while recording the sound. During that activity, the correlation between them and Polly’s folks crystalized, in my mind. Realizing the similarities, my heart went out to Steve & Anita. I couldn’t help it.

A precision-made German Schoeps MK-41 hyper-cardioid microphone, mounted at the end of a carbon fiber boom pole, floated just above, outside the camera frame. The proximity of the highly directional mic allowed me to hear every nuance of their speech and expression, as if I were face to face with them. With headphones on, they felt close enough to physically comfort with touch, as they recounted the circumstances from twenty years ago.

Upon arriving at their home on Garfield Street, they cordially greeted our crew, inviting us inside. Crossing the threshold, my spine tingled. Perceiving an enchantment of sorts, or perhaps a chronological displacement effect, it felt as if I had just stepped into the past. Something had stopped the clock there, freezing time in place.

Music was playing on their stereo. Tunes from James Taylor’s 1976 Greatest Hits album were coming out of the speakers, taking me back in time even further. The orange Warner Brothers label was spinning, round and round, at 33RPM. Just like the rest of the LP vinyl disc on the turntable. The lyrics were mesmerizing, with the words finding the musical notes perfectly, as the winner of five Grammy awards sang, “Something in the way she moves,” in James Taylor’s mellifluous tones.

A cursory glance around told me their place was delightful. Warm and inviting, with the sort of charming touches that make a house a home, Steve’s woodworking skills were evident. Certain items showed his personal touch, being obviously constructed by a master cabinetmaker. An unmistakable warmth was detectable too; the element that comes from the heart of a mother seriously bent on homemaking. You could feel the essence of love there. A lot of nurturing had taken place inside, under the roof of their home.

The kitchen seemed like the obvious room to conduct the interview. Seated next to each other, with mugs of coffee in hand, Steve & Anita delved into their past. They began recounting the tragedy of what happened with Rachel, along with what had befallen them in the aftermath.

As they related their story, expression became somewhat difficult for them, as one would naturally expect. It had been quite some time, since they’d taken out the letter they’d received after their daughter’s death. The document showed signs of age, worn from being handled time and time again, displaying obvious water stains. Moisture had come from the tears they’d shed, smudging the ink, the first and subsequent times the sheet of paper was handled.

New teardrops would appear, before the interview was completed. As painful and difficult as it was, both of them managed to convey their truth with dignity and courage. It was as powerful a moment in filmmaking as I had ever seen.

From within the catacomb of sacred space, they opened up their hearts, bravely exposing themselves by showing their sorrows. Most importantly, they shared a message of hope for others, demonstrating by their own actions and lives that it was possible to recover and heal from even something as terrible and debilitating  as losing a firstborn child. The valor they displayed, along with their vulnerability, was both profound and magnificent. I will never forget their story, as long as I live.

While thinking about Steve & Anita, during a recent trip to Portland in 2015, I found an online blog related to parents of lost children. It contained a review, in one post. The writer sensed something deeper, a level of poignancy, from watching Steve & Anita’s interview. Describing the feel of the kitchen scene, they wrote how the couple seemed like “you and I” kind of people, instantly likable, and easy to relate to.

They also brought up the soundtrack consistency. During the interview, background noises came and went, as usual. Normally, that could be an audio  issue. However, good fortune was accompanying us on that particular day. Mournful tones annunciated, from a locomotive engine off in the distance. They wailed softly, harmoniously, with perfect punctuation, sonically accenting their tale.

To my ears, the engineer running the train was sympathetically ad libbing to their story, in solidarity with them. Listening expectantly, I couldn’t believe the luck involved, at the time. The reviewer noticed the train sounds too, identifying  them as being elemental to the story itself.

Their perspective delighted me to no end, to be completely honest. The serendipitous background elements had fit the scene like a glove, to the extent listeners appreciated the Cinéma vérité  sound as noteworthy content. It had been a tremendous boon, considering the raw emotion and feelings Steve & Anita had expressed. We couldn’t ask them for a second take, after all.

Despite Murphy’s Law, the train sounds seemed suspiciously well-timed, to the extent an experienced location recordist might accuse the editor of adding them later, as post-production sound effects. But that simply wasn’t the case. For some reason, there was a beautiful synchronicity watching over our production that afternoon. We’d been especially fortunate, in that regard.

The same scenario developed again, with random sounds coming from the little children playing outside. Just as Steve & Anita began talking about the letter having instilled a new sense of hope in their lives, with impeccable timing, joyful laughter could be heard. It was right on cue, perfectly in keeping with the context, as they told their story. Best of all, the director deemed the sound to be perfectly acceptable, after listening to playback.

The blogger reviewing the scene from the movie noted both of the unwanted and unexpected background sounds as charming elements. Occurring naturally, the timing conveyed the tone of their story, underlining the sentimental portions. The audio details added something else, above and beyond the power of their words alone. The online review brought back memories of the day we’d filmed.

After reviewing the film clip on Youtube, it was clear. The serendipitous audio content was just as the blogger had described. The background sounds injected subtle meaning, playing a poignant part in the saga, by adding nonverbal texture to the terrain of their narrative.

Just like the metaphoric value of the train whistle, the underlying message from their story was simple but powerful. They were able to reestablish their equilibrium and get back to raising their two sons, by implementing the ideas and wisdom contained in the unexpected letter they’d received from Ram Dass.

He’d given them a map to show the way. The diagram assisted, releasing them from the dark shadows, facilitating their return. Describing the escape vehicle, his instructions illuminated the path and direction they desperately were looking for. To them, the letter had been a lifesaver.

The note had meant so much, back in 1979. Now it was twenty years later, in 1999. A three-man film crew was arriving at their home in Ashland. They would be filming an up-close and personal interview, held in an intimate setting. The couple hadn’t been expecting anything, when they received a call from the production company asking for their involvement. The request had come completely out of the blue. But they went ahead and agreed to participate anyway.

As seasoned filmmakers, we were accustomed to embracing sensitive subjects. Holding the space, along with being skilled at gracefully capturing real stories, with raw emotions and feelings involved, was part of our craft. In the process of exploring their experience, with Rachel’s life and death, we would be opening doors, gateways, portals into the unknown which had long since been closed off and sealed. In the back of our minds, we knew of the potential, while praying that we wouldn’t be unnecessarily stirring Pandora’s Box.

That overarching sensitivity prepared us for what might come forth during the interview. At the conclusion, we realized something profound had transpired. The process of interviewing Steve & Anita had stimulated an emotional catharsis for the couple.

Psychologically, they appeared to have executed a lateral arabesque, like a pair of synchronized swimmers. The maneuver came as a completely unexpected surprise. A subtle transfiguration had occurred. I could see it in their eyes. Their orbits glittered brightly, cleansed beyond what the normal flow of tears can achieve. We’d just witnessed a transformation, right before our very eyes, in front of our camera. They’d been rejuvenated.

During the course of the interview, while relating the details, their vibration changed. From an aching sadness, they moved into a neutral place. And then it happened, without any warning, just like that.

Afterward, it was obvious, to the professional observers in the room. We’d just seen something very special, rare, bordering on holy and sacred. It left us with a dearth of appropriate words to articulate. Steve & Anita seemed like they were walking on a cushion of air, ecstatic, perhaps without realizing why just yet. Their moods had shifted, I could see from their postures and body language. A somatic change had taken place. They were different now, appearing lighter, brighter, and more youthful than they had looked just an hour ago.

Whatever it was they had just realized, the new perspective left them in a great place, mildly euphoric, in an altered state. Compared to earlier, it was obvious that a weight had just lifted off their shoulders, with palpable relief.

Their initial tears and sadness had certainly been authentically connected to the real thing. Those sentiments were tied directly to the past anguish and devastation, dating back two decades earlier, from when they first lost Rachel. However, a metamorphosis occurred. The leaden feelings had shifted, over time. Excruciatingly painful emotions had transmuted, changing via the alchemy of the Shadow, turning into gold. Interest had accrued, over the decades, compounding the noble metal into a vast wealth of riches. They’d just learned of the value of their deposits, it would seem.

Like a cleansing freshet of cool water, rippling upwards from an artesian well, their emotions surfaced. The flow washed away lingering traces of pain, transforming their old wounds. The exchange had bordered on shamanic, with the camera crew facilitating their journey. Something heavy, an object they might not have been fully aware they were carrying, seemed to be gone now.

I hoped it would persist. Hints of magic still floated in the air. Motes of mystical elements sparkled, here and there, as part of an adjunct universe existing on an ad hoc basis in a kitchen somewhere, pursuant to an arcane grimoire or just a wild imagination, perhaps. In any event, an alchemical transformation had catalyzed, amidst the aether. As the rarified atmosphere dissipated back to normal, we returned to the ground. It had been a small miracle, sized perfectly to fit the room.

As we wrapped our equipment, said our goodbyes, and bid farewell, I couldn’t help but notice how happy Steve & Anita appeared. Making the psychological excursion into their past had turned out to be an especially worthwhile undertaking for them. As we drove away, the picture of a happy couple persisted in the rear view mirror. That’s how they remained, in my memory, as genuine people with authentic spiritual depth. They’d prevailed, managing to survive and heal from the most terrible emotional wound a parent can sustain.

As we departed Ashland, amidst a flurry of fluttering pennants and colorful banners proclaiming the Bard’s theatrical offerings, it occurred to us how we’d been inadvertent midwives. Coaxing them to voice their story had given birth to something new, as their tale had unfolded.

Whatever it had been, the novel element occupied the emotional space afterward. We all felt something inexplicable, as it happened. Yet, not one of us could articulate anything out loud, or put a finger on it, exactly what it was or had been. We just knew it was something good. Nobody wanted to break the spell, it seemed, as it lingered on.

Remarkably, we left the Isser’s in better condition than we had found them. For a film crew, that was really unusual. We joked about it, agreeing with each other, on the flight back to the Bay Area. Indeed, that had been the case. It was a good feeling, to have been involved in telling their story. And to have met such decent  and sincere people. They turned out to be the genuine article, those two.

In 2001, FIERCE GRACE was screened in Northern California, at the Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County. The picture received a standing ovation, with the applause persisting far beyond what one might expect for a home-crowd favorite like Ram Dass. Afterward, the director was invited onstage to be interviewed about the production. The audience was still hungry for more, after the screen credits had rolled. Stagehands put two chairs on the stage, one for the director and one for the interviewer.

During the exchange, Mickey spontaneously mentioned that a couple of crew members, the sound man and camera assistant, were sitting in the front row. We’d been given VIP seats there. Upon hearing of our presence, the crowd started clapping again. Without missing a beat, the director urged us to stand and take a bow. And then the audience’s enthusiasm really kicked in. Their applause thundered, on and on, as the AC and I looked at each other, tickled with delight over how they were treating us.

Before we could sit back down, the crowd got on their feet for a second standing ovation. They went wild, lavishing us with approval. This was special. We’d earned it. Their accolades left us feeling wreathed in laurels. The applause finally diminished. However, the warm glow lingered on.

I detailed the film festival experience to Steve, as we sat there at the kitchen table, describing the jam-packed audience inside the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. They’d happily generated another rousing crescendo of applause, this time for the crew members. “It was pretty great,” I admitted, pausing to remember the interior of the theatre. Over three-hundred pairs of clapping hands had enthusiastically come together in appreciation, to honor us for our involvement.

From my sentimental state of happy reverie, I heard a voice. “Please continue,” Steve urged, adding “Anita will be back any minute now.” I resumed, picking up where I’d left off. “It was the last standing ovation I thought I would ever receive… I decided to hang it up and retire from doing sound afterward,” I explained, without going too far into the details driving my decision to leave show business.

It was late September of 2015 now, around six o’clock in the evening, on the day after the combined Blood Moon and lunar eclipse. On my way back from Portland, I decided to visit them. The Internet search which turned up the blogger’s review of the kitchen scene prompted me. After reading it, seeing them in person felt like an important thing to do.

On my way home, I followed the instructions leading to their address. The destination was familiar, just like I remembered. As I sat parked along the sidewalk, a minor skirmish broke out between my curiosity and the East Coast set of manners admonishing me about the time. It was the dinner hour, for crying out loud. Knocking on their door would be the pinnacle of rude behavior. I pondered, what to do next.

Solving my dilemma, right on cue, Steve’s truck came rolling by. He turned into his driveway and parked next to the house. Actually, he came zipping in like he’d forgotten something on the stove. With a sense of urgency, he hustled inside quickly. Five minutes later, after having put my good manners on hold, I was knocking on their front door, hoping it wouldn’t be an unwanted intrusion.

He answered, looking pressed for time. It only took a moment or two, for Steve to dial in who I was. Mentioning the year and the film did the trick. At first, he seemed slightly bewildered to see me. It was obvious they weren’t expecting anyone, from his demeanor. However, the novelty of being visited by a member of the film crew must have surpassed any annoyance. He invited me in, cordially, just as they had done the first time we’d visited back in 1999.

After shaking hands, I related having spontaneously thought of them on the evening of the eclipse, outlining the online review that had captured my attention. Then I thanked him for having participated in making what was to be my last film project such a great success. The movie had been a milestone in my life too, as it turned out.

As predicted, Anita arrived home minutes later. She came bustling in, a woman on a mission. When she saw an unexpected stranger sitting at the kitchen table, she froze, staring at her husband quizzically with her body language asking “what gives here?” It was obvious. She was mildly impatient about something. My presence hadn’t been part of the plan. I sensed a bit of frustration, on her part, that someone uninvited was there. However, Steve quickly saved the day.

“Anita,” he said, calmly and carefully, waiting for her full attention to arrive. When it did, he continued. “This is the gentleman who did the sound, back in 1999, on our interview for the Ram Dass movie.” The new information changed things. Her demeanor abruptly shifted. A moment later, she registered first surprise and then recognition. It was followed by a welcoming smile. “He was just telling me about the film production,” Steve offered hopefully, in appeasement.

A few moments later, we were in conversation, seated at their kitchen table. Steve asked me to recount the description of the film festival audience again, so Anita could hear about it firsthand. “The audience just loved the picture,” I began… The news delighted them. They hadn’t been aware of the standing ovation, as it turned out. They asked me to tell them more about the project, now intrigued.

I decided to share with them how the shooting schedule had started, describing the first day we began filming. It was inside Ram Dass’s home in San Anselmo. During a set up, a small clipboard, an item used for holding sound reports, had accidentally fallen out from the front pouch of my audio recorder. Recalling the event, from the back of my mind, I recounted what had happened that afternoon. The moment had quickly escalated, turning into a weirdly intense and somewhat uncomfortable confrontation.

The clipboard clattered harmlessly, landing on a coffee table with a surface made of thick glass, without causing a scratch. However, the incident inexplicably inflamed Ram Dass, without any warning. He began shouting at me, a few second later. From his wheelchair, he roared loudly, enraged.

Muscles corded at his neck, during his tirade. His face turned crimson, from anger. The exaggerated and inappropriate outburst came as a total shock, to everyone. Ram Dass himself seemed quite perplexed too, after his outburst subsided. It wasn’t really his style, to act out over something material like that.

“Amidst his fury, I had the strongest sense of what the table meant to him,” I explained calmly. Steve & Anita sat transfixed, rapt with attention, as I recounted how I’d been angrily chewed out by their guru. The author of Be Here Now had suddenly become outraged, over something which seemed harmless and trivial. The couple look horrified. “How did it turn out?” they asked, with glum expressions on their faces, mystified.

“Honestly, I’ve been yelled at by people a lot bigger than Ram Dass,” I admitted, with a look of mischievous culpability on my face. They smiled at the notion. “At the time, I had a sudden flash of insight.” They stared at me, wondering what it might be. “I just knew that Ram Dass subconsciously associated the table with his mother,” I continued, explaining how the stroke had confined Ram Dass  to a wheelchair.

“It was all terribly frustrating for him, you have to realize.” That much had been obvious. The man had always been active and able bodied. Now an attendant was required. And everything was difficult for him to execute. A single event, one brilliant flash, had significantly transformed his existence. “I really did feel for him,” I assured them. It was true. I couldn’t help but sympathize with his pain.

The crippling neurological event left him in abject misery, weak as a kitten. With discomfort and excruciating pain hobbling him, he was unable to participate in the activities he loved to engage in. Golf, swimming, playing the cello, driving his convertible, those activities all went right out the window. Indulging in the pleasures that brought him joy was no longer an option. Even speaking was a frustrating challenge, for this brilliant character, now that he was afflicted with aphasia. I could see the look on their faces, as they tried to reconcile the outburst. It didn’t fit with the image they held, in their minds, of who Ram Dass was.

While the wheelchair bound stroke patient was raging at me with furious anger, I had been empathizing with him, the entire time. At the root of it all, he just wanted his mother. Who could blame him, really? Someone dropped an object on the cherished item which reminded him of the solace only a mother can offer.

The table was unscathed. But the camel had been loaded with one piece of straw too many. As the dromedary’s back broke under the load, a torrent ripped open the floodgates in a raging current of emotion. The flow of angst carried Ram Dass downstream, along with everything else, with him helpless to stop the deluge.

I’d accidentally highlighted a stark reminder, inadvertently bringing into focus the comfort he was deprived of receiving. “I knew it had nothing to do with a table, or a clipboard, and everything to do with him just wanting his mother,” I explained to them. They sat there, both speechless, shaking their heads.

“Ram Dass actually raised his voice at you?” Steve finally questioned, with bona fide disbelief, his eyes wide. “Yes,” I replied. “He roared at me.” I described the setting to them. “To my right, I could see our director, with both hands on his cheeks, appearing dejected as he saw his project going up in smoke. On my left, holding his camera, was Buddy Squires, our cinematographer. He was polarized. Something raw and emotional was taking place, right before his eyes, without him being able to film it.” It had been a very awkward moment, obviously.

The couple looked at me, flabbergasted. I overheard Steve, as he turned to Anita and quietly whispered, asking rhetorically, “which of them is the real master?” His comment made me smile as I wrapped up the anecdote. Steve had just paid me a tremendous compliment.

“How did it resolve?” they asked. In truth, I’d handled things well. “Reassuring him did the trick. And promising that it wouldn’t happen again,” was my reply. Steve and Anita still seemed incredulous, about Ram Dass’s angry outburst. It had come from the same character who’d sent the compassionate letter responsible for bringing them out of their terrible depression.

While relating the details of the story, Steve & Anita’s mouths had fallen open in surprise, at the contrast. They struggled to believe that Ram Dass had blown his cool and yelled at someone. But it was true. “After his initial tantrum, it was smooth sailing between us, from then on.” That had been true too. Faced with the terrible suffering of another, compassion had won out, again. Farther along in the shooting schedule, I found myself rubbing Ram Dass’s feet, to give him comfort. I also seemed to be able to make the man laugh, despite his misery.

Closing the story on a positive note, I changed the subject by asking what was new in their lives. “What about your two boys?” I queried, hoping there would be some good news for them to share.

Anita answered, happily, with a sense of pride in her voice. Their two sons were all grown up now and living in Los Angeles. One of them had married, I learned. While speaking of her kids, she beamed with joy. And then a big smile broke out on her face, as she continued. Steve was smiling broadly too, looking at his wife with eyes full of love and respect. I glanced back and forth at them, looking at their faces, while trying to decode their secret. Perhaps they’d just won the lottery?

That wasn’t it. Nonetheless, they did have an exceptionally good reason to be happy, along with a good excuse for why they were running around so frantically. Looking especially pleased and happy with themselves, Steve & Anita broke the big news. They were right on the verge of becoming grandparents, for the very first time.

Their daughter-in-law was about to give birth, they explained, excitedly. “That’s great!” I replied, asking “when is she due?” As it turned out, time was of the essence for the Isser’s. “Tonight!” they both replied, lighting up like a pair of Fourth of July sparklers, looking so happy they might burst.

That explained why they were cramped for time. They’d been packing for their trip, when I dropped in. It was their plan to be there, when their grandchild was delivered, to greet the newly minted infant entering the world. It was exciting news, to say the least.

I found out they were expecting a girl, from the overjoyed and very excited soon-to-be grandparents. The implications were obvious. This was the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of their healing journey. Words could not express the depth of their happiness, given their life story. And then it occurred to me how my presence might be interpreted as a positive harbinger, despite the visit being totally coincidental.

It was a random and impromptu decision, on my part; if there is such a thing. On the eve of their new beginning, I had brought back a fragment of their past, commemorating their journey, honoring the memory of Rachel.

I made a silent prayer, for an enduring happiness, while hugging them. Steve got a congratulatory handshake too. The expressions on their faces were simply wonderful to behold. What Ram Dass conveyed had been powerful medicine. They had proven it to themselves, and everyone else, by walking those truths. Now they were reaping happiness, in the form of emotional riches. They had won the lottery after all, I suppose one might say.

Their good news left me feeling wonderfully elated. Something crucial had come full circle to completion in their lives. Standing on the threshold, they’d opened the first part of a new chapter in their lives. It was really something. I’d been fortunate enough to learn of their joyous news, in person, just by knocking on their door. In the words of Ram Dass, it was “Yummy!”

Seeing how things couldn’t possibly get any better, and how these folks needed to get going to reach a birthing center in Los Angeles, I decided to make a quick exit so they could be on their way. The distraction from an errant knight on a quest seeking the Holy Grail could wait. Right now, they had a granddaughter waiting to meet them. Nothing else really mattered.

Not wanting to be the source of any further impedance, I sympathized, “no wonder you guys are frantic,” as I got up to leave. But they stopped me before I could. “Don’t go,” Steve said, “please, stay.” I sat back down, now curious and slightly bemused. “We were running around frantically, earlier,” Steve stated calmly, with added emphasis on the past tense. He looked at his wife for confirmation. Anita nodded in agreement, placidly smiling. For some reason, they both looked completely relaxed now. A shift had occurred. It was slightly mysterious. I wondered what had changed, as he continued speaking.

“But now we are completely calm, grounded, and at peace,” Steve declared, with a serene expression on his face. I looked at Anita. She nodded again, affirmatively, also with a tranquil expression on her face. I took a deep breath and relaxed along with them, sharing the non-verbal experience taking place at the kitchen table.

Long seconds ticked off the clock, while we sat there quietly, being here now, marinating in a meaningfully rich silence filled with unspoken understandings.  And then it was time to go. “Thank you for visiting us,” Anita said, contentedly. “We’re really glad you came,” Steve added, with sincerity. They both were happily smiling. So was I, it turned out.



We made plans to reconnect sometime in the future. “I will be looking forward to that day,” I said cheerfully, adding “let me take your picture.” Without any direction on my part, they effortlessly melded together for the photo opportunity. Through the viewfinder, I saw a happy pair, beautifully entwined in dynamic synchronization. Just like two salmon navigating the journey upstream together, enjoined, on their way towards the completion of their life cycle.

On the eve of the birth of their granddaughter, they’d commemorated the special memory of Rachel, the girl who’d been their daughter once. Time had healed so much. And now they were moving ahead with a new love, for a new little girl, and a new happiness for themselves.

Before I departed, they asked me what I was doing since having left the film business. “I’m a writer now,” I replied, adding, “you two are going to be in my next story.”

I hope to get around to writing that sometime soon…