An Author Offers an Optimistic Response to Life at Any Stage

On Sept. 3, 2019, Richard S. Cohen’s life changed forever. 

The president of a mergers and acquisitions firm specializing in health care, Cohen could only bear witness as his wife, Marcia, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She died less than six months later, on Feb. 10, 2020, a month after turning 68. By then, Cohen had the idea for a book.

“We were constantly told…by doctors and nurses that we were treating the experience in a more uplifting and inspirational way than the norm,” Cohen recalls via phone from his Westchester County, New York, home. “I was encouraged by them to write it up.”

The Smooth River, Cohen’s first book, chronicles the 160 days from Marcia’s diagnosis to death and the approach the couple took to facing down her terminal illness. They didn’t eschew traditional medicine. “We did everything,” Cohen says. Additionally, however, the couple initiated charitable acts, made time for important conversations, and, Cohen says, “[saw] everyday events as spiritual.” This approach, Cohen notes, is applicable to those in any stage of life. “Hopefully, [the book] provides readers with the message that if Marcia and I can find meaning and inspiration and…ways to help other people while Marcia was being pounded by chemo, then other people can do that under more relaxed circumstances.”

Even as 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 remembers, “She handled crises for them and found calm within the storm during their tumultuous periods, and [then] applied the same approach to her own cancer.” Cohen says he used his own professional training as a corporate lawyer and a health care 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 arrived at the book’s title—and the philosophy it imbues. “During the illness while Marcia had periodic stays in the hospital, I just blurted this metaphor out as a description of how we wanted Marcia to be treated,” he says. “Whether chemo and radiation work or don’t, it’s OK. We want to be treated medically but also philosophically, [and] we want to live this period in some degree of safe harbor.”

A major part of Cohen and Marcia’s post-diagnosis “life plan,” as he calls it, involved simple but profound rituals like candlelight dinners—even if they took place before sunset:

Every night that Marcia was up to eating some dinner, we ate by candlelight….If the moment struck at 4:30 p.m., that was when we had a light, early dinner. We liked being alone in a quiet restaurant. Dinner was not drawn out. It took less than forty-five minutes, and we often left with Marcia taking home a doggie bag full of food. The amount she ate and the time we spent at the table weren’t the point. It was the experience of consciously enjoying the food, everything that came to our senses, everything about everything. It was about getting out and appreciating all the details we used to take for granted and maybe didn’t notice. That was a Smooth River moment.

The couple also brought their favorite music to Marcia’s hospital room to create an environment that went beyond clinical. “We played soft Broadway instrumentals and jazz, and it put us in a serene, romantic mood,” Cohen says. “I call that ‘Room 413 music’ because that’s where she passed away. We created a beautiful environment there, just a beautiful sanctuary.” While writing The Smooth River, he says, he would often put on that same music for inspiration.

Another important aspect of the couple’s philosophy was giving back, even as Marcia’s health continued to decline. “Our approach was to engage in projects that help other people and feel good about that, and get our minds above the cancer,” Cohen says of this work, which continues after Marcia’s death. 

The couple’s charitable projects started out small but significant. Inspired by the scenic walks and drives they often took, Cohen went to the village administrators of Tarrytown, New York, to have a bench installed in his wife’s honor. Though Marcia didn’t live long enough to see the finished product, the endeavor was a success. “They came out with a beautiful location overlooking the Hudson River and the New York City skyline,” Cohen says. “They started a memorial bench area, with Marcia’s being the first.”

This led to larger projects, including a family foundation called Marcia’s Light that Cohen says “builds relationships among people of diverse backgrounds on a grassroots basis.” Before this interview, Cohen was on a planning call for the foundation’s latest effort, a pilot program that will bring 15 Jewish and 15 Arab college students together at Israel’s Al-Qasemi Academy to learn about one another’s cultures.

Cohen considers The Smooth River, which Kirkus Reviews named one of its Best Indie Books of 2021 and called “[a] heart-rending but informative end-of-life guide,” an important part of this ongoing outreach. While he is always happy to hear success stories of those who have survived serious illnesses, he wants readers to remember that life can be lived to the fullest, no matter the prognosis. He believes his experiences, and Marcia’s, can help those facing personal tragedy and those who will be left behind. 

“I’m happy to stand up for them, people who [have] passed, and make the point that life should be defined by the entirety of it, and not how we die or our illness,” he says. “We’re not cancer or divorce. Our life should be bigger than that.” 

Lauren Emily Whalen is the author of four books for young adults. She lives in Chicago.