Sunday, October 22, 2006

In Memoriam: Barbara Yanowski

This summer, my first workshop in Iowa City was "This Too is Life: Memoirs of Illness." I was interested in the genre of memoir, and considered myself an expert on illness. Even though I was newly-diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I wasn't openly sharing about it. The first day I stepped in the class, there were a few older people, a couple of doctors, a woman who had lost her daughter to cancer and another woman with MS. After the first class, I was completely bummed out.

I stuck with it, though. I realized that being with these people for several hours a day--reading essays, writing our experiences, and being in all stages of illness--was uncomfortably confronting for me. I secretly defined myself as the "healthy sick girl." I believed I could heal myself with wheatgrass, vitamins and positive thoughts. I wasn't fooling anyone though, with a cooler of interferon at my feet.

One of our assignment was to discuss our regrets. Two women in their seventies-Ruth and Barbara-were the comedy troupe of our class. Ruth said that she would have been "more promiscuous." Ruth detailed all of the ways she had tried to be a "good girl" and how if she could go back, she would have lots more sex. Barbara was a firecracker, spurring her on, asking for details. I later learned that Barbara was struggling with cancer, an ongoing battle for her.

The last night of our class, we had a special dinner sponsored by the university. When I arrived after getting my Interferon treatment, Barbara and Ruth saved a place for me. Ruth assembled a small plate of desserts, instructing me, one by one, which ones were her favorites. It hit me how ironic, I was fighting with every cell of my body to look good--while it felt like every joint was swelling and dismantling. Meanwhile, this table of "sick" people were so energetic, self-expressed, free. The difference between us was they had accepted their situation and I was using all of my energy to deny it.

Barbara grabbed my arm across the table. "Your writing reminds me of Augusten Burroughs," she said. I told her that Augusten Burroughs was one of my favorite contemporary authors. I was flattered out of my mind. "Truth can be funny." She smiled and told me to keep on writing. That's the last time I saw Barbara. Today, I got the sad news from our teacher, Cecile Goding, that Barbara passed away comfortably on Friday night with her husband by her side. Cecile said her only comments on the workshop evaluation form said, "Loved everything, but need more desserts!" Barbara exposed me to the possibility that having an illness is not a character flaw. It creates opportunity and compassion, and ultimately is part of what can make a person truly extraordinary. She saw the funny side of truth. And, she showed us not to sit around, waiting for the good stuff: Eat dessert first.


My thoughts and prayers are with Barbara's family and friends during this difficult time.
The memorial service is Nov. 4, 11-1:30 at the Beach AA meeting she started in St. Pete Beach. Memorials may be sent to Moffet Cancer Institute, Foundation for Lymphoma Research, Tampa, FL.


Margie said...

Dr. Yanowski (or Dr. Y as we called her) was one of my favorite teachers at Columbia College back in the 90s. I've been re-reading her book, 'The Bad Stuff is the Good Stuff' and thinking about how kind, generous, inspiring and spunky she was. She gave every one of her students a copy of her favorite poem entitled Don't Quit by C.W. Longenecker and I still have mine. What a lady! Thanks for sharing your memories of her.

Johnny K said...

I was sad to hear of Dr. Yanowski's passing. She was a great mentor for me at Columbia College Chicago (1990) in the Television program. She was the one who advocated networking as the #1 way to get your career started, and to maintain it. She was a great influence.