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 of them told me recently. Whales don’t do that. Mona did.