I fell in love on the phone. I was working on a novel in Washington and she was my editor in New York, but this was hack work — a movie novelization unworthy of a travel budget — so we never met. Still, the voice stayed with me. It contained a smile, a mellow eroticism, a bubbly smarts and layers of warmth. It would be years before we met and still more years before we got together and a bit longer until I moved in. I loved her like a teenager, like the kid I no longer was. I was stunned by the force of it, waited for it to fail — but it never did. She died last Wednesday, not that she ever will.
Mona Riklis Ackerman succumbed to ovarian cancer, a mean, vicious disease. The three and a half years she suffered from it were brutal, but somehow she rarely lost her glow and her sense of humor. She organized her chemotherapy sessions so we could watch movies on a DVD player or we would just sit around and chat. Her son and daughter joined us, friends, too. The sessions were often raucous — much laughter, much food for us and the medical staff. You scoff. I understand. Still, it is true.
Before book publishing, Mona had been in the movie business, a vice president of United Artists. But the bicoastal life was not for her. Her two children came first and so, in her mid-30s, she went back to school, nailed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology and set herself up in a little office at Bellevue Hospital. Later, she moved on to a private high school and then opened her own practice. Among her first patients were HIV/AIDS victims, confused and terrified men who were told the disease — then incurable — was their own fault. Mona soothed. Mona listened. Mona talked. She had the gift.
I have swum with whales. I have been a Washington Post columnist for a very long time. I have met politicians, movie stars, famous writers, billionaires with airplanes, billionaires with yachts — whales you know, whales you’ve heard of. Mona was no whale. She worked in secret, in her office with the shades drawn. She’d come home and tell me she’d done good work, nothing more. She had difficult patients — anorexics and such — and sometimes we were on suicide watch. On rare occasions, a former patient would emerge from the shadow. “Saved my life,” one them told me recently. Whales don’t do that. Mona did.
She was a writer herself. For a long time she did a weekly column on psychology for the Huffington Post. Her insights were smart, wise. She taught a course of her own creation on the psychology of philanthropy at New York University. She was a philanthropist herself as well, president of her family’s foundation. She contributed to NYU, the Museum of Modern Art and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. She opened her home to performing artists in the name of scientific research. She threw brilliant parties, although she didn’t always stay. She would tiptoe down the hallway to her bedroom and read a book.
Over the years we’d run into each other from time to time — first when she was with mutual friends at a restaurant, then at a party, then another party, then a funeral. Each time, we’d find a corner and talk and talk and talk. Finally, we met alone — lunch, we called it. That was nearly 11 years ago. Soon, I moved in and my every morning would begin with a therapy session. I’d try to get away, but her voice would draw me back. “Let’s talk,” she’d say. She found meaning in what I said and what I didn’t say. She opened me up, filleted me like a halibut and then, with a smile, put me back together again. I loved my shrink.
I had what I called “Mona Moments” — bursts of intense love. They could make me gasp, even go a bit weak in the knees. (Ya think it doesn’t happen?) She’d ask me what she had said — what had done it? I rarely knew. I watched her have a similar effect on others. She was adored. She glowed. She was descended from the 18th-century charismatic rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, and I came to think she inherited a particle of his electrifying DNA. It might be scientifically silly, but it worked for me.
The whales get their due — accolades and swell obituaries, sometimes even deserved. This is Mona’s. For three and a half years, I breathed the fumes of her optimism almost until she could breathe no more. She died last Wednesday, not that she ever will.
Richard Cohen’s email address is email@example.com.