You’ve heard the expression,” A picture is worth a thousand words but have you heard this one? A death is worth a thousand mitzvahs.” — Margie Boule, Oregonian Columnist
Cohen at TEDx Denver, CO December 2011.
1,000 Mitzvahs is available in hard copy and as an ebook. 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life shares Cohen’s two-and-a-half year journey from sorrow to inspriation through simple daily acts of kindness. … Continue reading
It’s been months since I’ve posted on my blog and frankly, I am sad that I haven’t been able to eek out some time to keep writing about life. When I took the job with Make-A-Wish I really had no idea how dramatically it would change everything in my life including my energy to jot my thoughts and observations down on any regular basis.
But this has been a summer of huge changes and I have been thinking for several weeks that I needed to finally sit down and write again on my blog. Today, I finally did. The first change is that I am no longer working full-time at the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I decided that while I loved the organization and their mission the shift from entrepreneur to fulltime employee wasn’t a good fit for me or my family. It was just after my son’s bar mitzvah in early July that I gave my notice. Working fulltime was a very eye-opening experience and one that I am happy I had. I learned a lot this year about balance and priorities. Ironically, I often felt that while my work was helping others connect to volunteering with Make-A-Wish my personal ability to give more or do more felt greatly reduced. That wasn’t something I’d expected working fulltime and surprisingly it didn’t always make me happy.
The greater change this summer was that just three weeks after my son’s bar mitzvah in mid-July my mother Ellen Pollens took her own life. It was a normal day, my family and I were in the car with a picnic headed to a local river for a fun day of swimming, when we received a phone call from the Beaverton Police that my mom was dead. Shock and disbelief were my initial reactions. That quickly morphed into sadness and reality as I began to learn more about the details of her death. My mother had suffered her whole life with mental health challenges. She was also someone who liberally took prescription drugs. Thinking back through my life so many experiences were marked by her mental health challenges. In seventh grade, I relocated to Vermont to live with my father and stepmother because my mom was hospitalized. I always worried that the self medicating situation would end poorly. Our relationship was challenging to see that least, as we danced around her illness and I felt I needed to react to her behavior as it related to my own family. I had received counseling for how to enjoy the time we spent together but also create respectful boundaries that would protect and support myself and my family. It made for a complicated and difficult relationship.
I knew, however, that after my father died in 2006, it was important to find positive ways to be together that would make memories for us. I worked hard to make sure we tried to create those memories. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t.
One of my favorite memories (photo included) was attending a jazz party last October the night before my birthday and answering trivia questions about jazz music and musicians from the 20’s-60’s. My mom was a whiz and knew all of the answers. That was a special night.
My mother adored theatre, and we had attended at least one play together. Unfortunately, we had other plays scheduled that she didn’t attend over the past two years. Often she’d cancel in the days before the event saying she wasn’t up to it and I’d have to find a replacement for her ticket.
In April, she was hospitalized and I was only able to visit her once during the week she was there because of the limited visiting hours at the facility and my own work schedule. When she came home we spent a day looking at assisted living facilities. She became upset and addled. She wanted to go home and didn’t want to talk more about the possibility of assisted living options.
She didn’t come to my son’s bar mitzvah in July but she also hadn’t come to my daughter’s three years ago. That was the last time she’d been hospitalized. I chalked it up to the stress of the family gathering. I fully expected that after the bar mitzvah she would come through her depression. If it hadn’t been so common for her to cancel plans and not come to family events I might have been more alarmed by this behavior but it seemed par for the course, until it wasn’t. Until she finally decided she’d had enough and was ready to be done with life.
The ironic thing about this summer is that Robin Williams taking his own life just three weeks after my mother was a strangely timed event. His death helped me in some ways make more sense of my own mother’s death. I realized no matter how beloved, adored or celebrated someone is when they suffer with mental illness sometimes the only choice they can see is to end their life. It has made more sense to me that someone who suffers mental illness has demons that no one can help them with. When my news feed on FB was filled with quotes and thoughts and homages to Robin Williams just weeks after my own mother had taken her life I felt I understood her decision just a little bit more. After Robin Williams death, there were radio shows and newspaper articles talking about suicide. It all made me realize I am not to blame, no matter how busy I had been this past year. My mother was struggling with her own challenges, ones that had nothing to do with me. I know now that she is no longer suffering and I hope that in her passing I will find a suitable way to honor her as I did my father. She joked with me after my 1,000 Mitzvahs book came out that when she died, I’d have to do 2,000 mitzvahs in her memory. I am sure I rolled my eyes. Even with the a challenging relationship we had, I am her DNA. I don’t suffer the mental health issues that she had but I do share her love of music and language, theatre and public speaking and if you look at pictures of her when she was my age we do look-alike.
In my yoga practice, my teacher ends her classes each week by saying “We offer gratitude for all the challenges and all the blessings of our life, Namaste.” Today, that is how I feel for both my mother’s life and death. I love you mom.