Welcome to Michele Weinstein's 'alternative reality show'
In sickness, Weinstein faces herself
DAMASCUS, PA — Michele W. Weinstein is in her bedroom, propped up in a hospital bed, adjustable if the pain gets bad. A copy of Gibran’s “The Prophet” is close at hand. The laptop on which she’s written her upcoming book sits in front of her. The caregiver, bustling around, makes sure Weinstein is comfortable. Weinstein’s son is downstairs working; he’s there if she needs him.
The bed is surrounded by mirrors, so every motion Weinstein makes, every gesture, is reflected back and then back again, an infinite loop of images.
Next to Weinstein, a pile of stuffed animals play audience to the times when she lies back with an eye cover on, using hypnotherapy techniques on herself to come down from pain or bouts of anxiety.
“I leave the pain, I go somewhere else,” and she raises the eye covers. “What I say is, ‘Take me somewhere,’... You go into what your mindfulness needs for you. It’s wherever you want to go. It’s freedom.”
Weinstein first came to Damascus in 1978 with her second husband, after a career as a hairdresser and multiple salon owner in New York City.
After a divorce, remarriage and another divorce, she’s now gone back to her maiden name, but is perhaps better known by her storyteller alter-ego Grandma Michele. When she was married, she was Michele Schuchman, co-owner of the Wagon Wheel (later Michele’s) Restaurant in Callicoon. In the latter capacity, she created and sold award-winning sauces. In the former, she volunteered for causes, made appearances at local events and told stories to hospitalized children.
Grandma Michele, the character, draped herself in colorful costumes and vibrant wigs. She loved veils, hats and scarves. She carried puppets and feather boas, drawing bystanders into her performance. In a video of Grandma Michele on a subway in New York City, she dances to the beat of drummers, while her puppets sometimes reach out to interact with people.“It’s not me, it’s them!” she tells the riders. The whole persona was a fantastical version of a person—a colorful cartoon character spinning tales.
In 2016, the story of Grandma Michele hit a real-life turning point when a mammogram showed tumors in her breast. During the screening and testing processes, Weinstein imagined herself in a science-fiction fantasy, where all of the medical personnel were aliens. She returned to Pennsylvania with plans to heal holistically.
In denial, “I walked away from the recommendations,” she says, disregarding what she calls “the cancer conveyor belt” of surgery, drugs, radiation, chemo.
Weinstein disappeared once more into a reality of her own making. She traveled around the country on a bucket-list trip visiting synagogues, where people prayed over her. She visited friends and her 95-year-old mother in Florida. People danced for her, she says. She circles back to the prayers, over and over.
There were luminous moments in that journey, including an unexpected chance to talk to a cross-dresser about their culture, about safe places for heroin users, about lives that were not like her own. “It was a multi-spiritual pilgrimage,” she says.
A little more than a year after her initial diagnosis, in April 2017, Weinstein had two teeth extracted due to infections and agreed to a biopsy. “I knew that it was time for me to face it,” she says in a YouTube video during that time. “So here I am, and I’m going to chronicle it.” The video is one of more than 100 on her page, all reflections of her, rippling over and over again in a loop.
In Boca Raton, FL, Weinstein is incredulous that her oncologist’s name is Dr. Jane Skelton. “I’m thinking, this is not real, these are aliens… here’s Dr. Skeleton, I’m going to be a skeleton, I’m going to have no skin,” she says. “I’m in a cartoon. I’m in the cartoon, I’m writing the cartoon, but they’re cutting my body open.”
Her doctors found that the two tumors had fused into a large, cancerous tumor, and Weinstein returned to reality. She underwent a mastectomy and agreed to radiation but no chemo. Weinstein chronicles all of this in her forthcoming book, “The Gift of Destruction.” The book is in third person: an observer looking into her own life from the outside. In a year-old video posted to her YouTube page, Weinstein stands in a dressing gown with her own surgeon, interviewing him about the mastectomy he’s just performed on her.
“This was my own reality show,” she says. “Cancer? No, I have no cancer... I’m having a good time. I can dance for free, I can drive a car... Of course I had a fantasy. It worked for me.”
It’s impossible to tell if delaying surgery led to the cancer spreading. Maybe it doesn’t matter. She’s getting treatment now, the now that includes hospice care. “[This] is not a fantasy. This is reality… It’s very grounded.”
Lying propped up in bed, no wigs, no makeup—the accoutrement of Grandma Michele hanging somewhere in her closet. Stage four cancer, which has metastasized to Weinstein’s bones, has, in some ways, brought a woman who’s lived a thousand lives—some real, some imagined—back to herself. “I do not fight the cancer, I do not do battle with the cancer,” she says. “I live with it, the active cancer… we’re all in together in this body.”
In other ways, she’s still crafting her own narrative—dictating the story the way she wants it to be seen from the outside.
A previous River Reporter article on Weinstein asks what one should make of the free-spirited local celebrity who talks to hand puppets. “It’s a book, it’s an act, it’s marketing,” she says.
On Weinstein’s laptop is a folder of black and white photos of her bare-chested. The stark truth of the surgery: a woman with one breast, scars and inflammation where the other one was. In one photo she’s laughing. In another she’s praying. In another she’s making faces. “I’m comfortable with the show,” she says. “We all put on a show.”
For several years, Weinstein competed to be Ms. Pennsylvania Senior, winning runner-up three times. In a video from the pageant, she’s wearing all pink—leggings, tutu, top hat and a silk scarf tied around her neck. She wears a bemused expression on her face, as if mirroring an emotion an audience might feel watching her on stage.
In 2020 Weinstein says she plans to compete again. “Twenty-twenty will be the year of no hospice, no home health care,” she says, “and I will dance.”
“Conception to Birth: dreams do come true,” is available on Amazon. Her new book, on the gift of destruction, will be published in June. You can read more about Michele Weinstein on her website.
Annemarie Schuetz contributed additional reporting to this story here.