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At Age 88, Cancer Survivor Finds Healing In Music
Ruth Yorkin Drazen was 69 when her husband died of prostate cancer. She thought she'd be terrified when he died, only to experience an entirely different emotion.
"It was his having a way out to peace," says Drazen, now 88. "And if you love someone, you don't want them to suffer."
His passing, and the realization that so many people were consumed with fear at the thought of death, led Drazen to launch an entirely new career in her early 70s: documentary filmmaking.
In April, PBS will air Yorkin's fifth film in 13 years _ a look at the life of composer Gustav Mahler. The film is not only a combination of many subjects that interest Drazen _ psychology, philosophy, religion and music. It's also a tribute to the beauty of life, something Drazen believes many fail to appreciate.
"Heal the world _ that's what my intention is," she says. "And I feel so lucky that I'm here to do that."
Drazen was born in Washington, Pa., the oldest of three children in a middle-class family. Her parents exposed her to music early on, taking her to concerts in Pittsburgh as a child and encouraging her piano studies.
She went on to study piano at The Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her first marriage ended in divorce, partly due to the stress of the death of the couple's baby boy. The child, Anton, died of a rare genetic disorder before he turned 1. Her grief over her son sparked Drazen's interest in curing genetic illnesses. She spent years working for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the National Genetics Foundation.
Drazen lives in a spacious apartment in Manhattan. At her side is a walker that she's used ever since fracturing her neck in a fall three years ago. Her mental agility is boundless, however, and she talks with a confidence and verve that borders on saucy.
Her 28-year husband's struggle with cancer, and the elements of care he received at the hospital, served as a catalyst for her foray into filmmaking, but the roots of her interest in dealing with life and death go back futher, she says.
"I think that was the force of my filmmaking," she says. "Because in reality, I've been looking for her."
"The Choice is Yours," a documentary she produced a few years ago, looked at the life and philosophy of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who promoted the belief that man's primary motivational force is his search for meaning. The award-winning film includes footage of Frankl's lectures as well as interviews with physicians and patients who have endured cancer and other diseases.
"It's possible for people to have a medical problem and still have a good life," she says. "It is possible to turn the most negative experiences into something positive, and that's what we need to do more of and be less self-centered."
Her upcoming film explores the role of music in healing and how the composer turned to music to deal with often-hard circumstances. Drazen said she first became an ardent Mahler fan in her early 20s, after hearing some of his music and being overwhelmed.
"I think he's my soulmate," she says of the Austrian composer, who died in 1911. "His life is so troubled and he never gives up. That's something I adore about him. Whenever I hurt, I go for him. He helps remind me that this, too, shall pass."
Drazen intends to continue. "I would like, before I leave, to make a film that is going to address fear at its highest level," she says, adding that she'd also like to write a book.
After all, she may not fear death, but she does fear something else: retiring
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