An author offers an optimistic response to life at every stage
On September 3, 2019, Richard S. Cohenhis life has changed forever.
The president of a merger and acquisition company specializing in healthcare, Cohen could only testify when his wife, Marcia, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She died less than six months later, on February 10, 2020, a month after she turned 68. By this time, Cohen had the idea for a book.
“We were constantly told… by doctors and nurses that we were treating the experience in a way more uplifting and inspiring than the norm,” Cohen recalled over the phone from his home in Westchester County, New York. “I was encouraged by them to write it down.”
The smooth river, Cohen’s first book, chronicles the 160 days from Marcia’s diagnosis to death and the approach the couple took to confront her terminal illness. They did not shy away from traditional medicine. “We’ve done everything,” Cohen says. In addition, the couple started charities, made time for important conversations and, says Cohen, “[saw] everyday events as spiritual.” This approach, Cohen notes, applies to people at every stage of life. “Hopefully, [the book] sends readers the message that if Marcia and I can find meaning and inspiration and… ways to help other people while Marcia was crushed by chemo, then other people can do so under more relaxed circumstances.”
Even when she was dying, this proactive philosophy came naturally to his wife, Cohen says. Before her diagnosis, Marcia was a well-known public relations expert and crisis manager for celebrities, athletes and high-profile companies. He recalls: “She solved crises for them and found calm in the storm during their tumultuous periods, and [then] applied the same approach to her own cancer.” Cohen says he has used his own professional training as a corporate lawyer and healthcare industry expert to navigate a maze of doctors and treatment options. The detailed daily log he kept became the partial basis for: The smooth river†
Cohen explains how he came up with the book’s title — and the philosophy that permeates it. “During the illness, while Marcia was regularly hospitalized, I blurted out this metaphor as a description of how we wanted Marcia to be treated,” he says. “Whether chemo and radiation work or not, it’s okay. We want to be treated medically but also philosophically, [and] we want to live this period in a certain safe harbor.”
Much of Cohen and Marcia’s “life plan” after diagnosis, as he calls it, included simple yet profound rituals such as candlelight dinners — even if they took place before sunset:
Every night when Marcia had something to eat, we ate by candlelight… When the time struck at 4:30 PM, that was when we had a light, early dinner. We liked being alone in a quiet restaurant. Dinner was not planned out. It took less than forty-five minutes and we often left with Marcia bringing home a doggie bag full of food. It wasn’t about the amount she ate and the time we spent at the table. It was the experience of consciously enjoying the food, everything that came to our mind, everything about everything. It was about going out and appreciating all the details that we used to take for granted and might not notice. That was a Smooth River moment.
The pair also brought their favorite music to Marcia’s hospital room to create an environment beyond clinical. “We played soft Broadway instruments and jazz, and that put us in a serene, romantic atmosphere,” says Cohen. “I call it ‘Room 413 music’ because she passed away there. We have created a beautiful environment there, just a beautiful sanctuary.” while writing The smooth riverhe says, he often put on the same music for inspiration.
Another important aspect of the couple’s philosophy was giving back, even as Marcia’s health continued to deteriorate. “Our approach was to participate in projects that help other people and feel good about it, and raise our spirits above the cancer,” Cohen says of this work, which will continue after Marcia’s death.
The couple’s charitable projects started small but important. Inspired by the scenic walks and car rides they often took, Cohen went to the village administrators of Tarrytown, New York, to have a bench installed in his wife’s honor. Although Marcia didn’t live long enough to see the finished product, it was a success. “They came up with a beautiful location overlooking the Hudson River and the New York City skyline,” says Cohen. “They started a memorial bank area, with Marcia being the first.”
This led to larger projects, including a family foundation called Marcia’s Light, which Cohen says “builds relationships between people of different backgrounds on a foundation.” Prior to this interview, Cohen was on a planning call for the foundation’s latest effort, a pilot program that brings together 15 Jewish and 15 Arab students at the Al-Qasemi Academy in Israel to learn about each other’s cultures.
Cohen considers: The smooth riverThat Kirkus Reviews named one of the best indie books of 2021 and named “[a] heartbreaking yet informative guide to the end of life,” an important part of this ongoing outreach. While he’s always happy to hear success stories from those who have survived serious illness, he wants readers to remember that life can be lived to the fullest, regardless of the prognosis. He believes his experiences, and Marcia’s, can help those who face personal tragedy and those who are left behind.
“I’m happy to stand up for them, people who… [have] are over and make it clear that life should be defined by the whole of it, and not by how we die or by our illness,” he says. “We are not cancer or divorce. Our lives should be bigger than that.”
Lauren Emily Whalen is the author of four books for young adults. She lives in Chicago.