The following year with Michele was mostly magical. She was a gracious hostess in what seemed like an enchanted tea party, speckled with moments of relative madness. She was the psychedelic version …
The following year with Michele was mostly magical. She was a gracious hostess in what seemed like an enchanted tea party, speckled with moments of relative madness. She was the psychedelic version of Martha Stewart.
Impressive were her business sensibilities that continued to manage roughly half a dozen staff of rotating caregivers. She ran her home with the fastidiousness of her business endeavors. Her kitchen, cleaning regimen, and trash handling were designed with precision; everything was labeled and dated, nothing wasted, and every resource scrutinized. We designed, laminated and posted an elaborate “guest policy,” to the chagrin of family members and visiting friends.
I understood her need for structure as an accommodation in the face of a handicap, as I require it to ameliorate my distractibility. Michele would say, “I can’t have chaos,” and I heard, “Because my cancer condition creates a condition over which I have minimal control, I must control what I can.”
No surprise, the shining highlight was meal prep. In her kitchen, she was a magnificent maestro orchestrating a symphony of healing meals. That’s where her precious culinary secrets were disclosed. Occasionally, the mini diva reminded us how much those “lessons” were worth. Nevertheless, meals were always shared. Sometimes we’d help her host small dinner parties for random friends and neighbors, because, why not? As a woman who could shatter or master many stereotypes, she never appeared to me much as the “Jewish mother,” except in the kitchen. Michele fed others with relish.
Entertainment was ensured that year. We caregivers were afforded equal opportunity to escort her to any free cultural event she found. Always a great date, while overdressed to the nines, she was charming, witty, and easily the center of attention. Her sex appeal was as effervescent as ever and she could flirt like a vixen, simultaneously attempting coy while upholding archaic courtship protocol.
Yet she made no secret of her cancer. In fact, it was typically the first thing out of her mouth. With a smile. And the smile was real. Queen that she was, her grand finale was her final entry into the Ms. Senior America Pageant.
Michele had placed in several senior beauty pageants over the years. What was notable in her participation in the title for Ms. Pennsylvania Senior America 2020 was her Stage 4 cancer. The pageant expected contestants to be the picture of health. Because of full disclosure, the pageant people were aware of her condition. Perhaps desperate for bodies, they coddled her throughout. She and I worked together to master her best answers, which were scripted and rehearsed. Her cousin came from the city to fit her for the event in top designer fashion.
With those requirements covered, she needed only to focus on the talent segment. She chose “interpretive dance” because that’s something she could do on the spot and just make it up in the moment. The problem for her was finding a song. She had asked a friend to compose something. That didn’t happen. Oddly, she neglected to search herself, was avoidant even. She passed the responsibility on to one of the caregivers. Keen on requirements, Michele made certain I provided her with a song version with exactly the time allotted, but she never rehearsed her dance at all. In fact, aside from timing her entrance, she never even listened to it. That wasn’t the most concerning issue.
By the time the pageant came around, Michele made the journey to Harrisburg all by herself, while in hospice. This involved a car ride of several hours and an overnight stay for preparation and rehearsals. As she tells it, she got lost someplace short of her destination, pulled in at a diner, and called the police, who escorted her the rest of the way. She was many hours late, but since she worked superbly under pressure, she could go with the flow.
“‘I’m Every Woman’ isn’t a song about women’s empowerment—it’s Hoochie-Mama!” reported a dismayed Michele, perfectly cast as a real-life Little Miss Sunshine in her twilight years! As tiny as she was, she showed up big, or not at all. She made it back in one piece, positive attitude intact. I’d argue that Michele was the most courageous beauty pageant contestant ever. For that, she is a champion.
Michele admittedly put on characters like costumes she changed out of her endless wardrobe. Yet she was never inauthentic. Akin to Dolly Parton’s exaggerated glamour, she was forthcoming about her constructed illusions and despite them all, still incredibly real. Each “shift” (to use her word) was a decisive strategy to meet a necessary end that worked for her. The newly adopted persona or change in perspective was embraced wholeheartedly as a true aspect of herself. From early on, she learned how to be the conductor of her own ride, and not allow life to happen to her. She was a fervent student of life until the end. Although not academic, she was heavily learned in hard and soft skills, taking courses throughout her life in various fields, from fine art to energy healing, often with the most prestigious of educators.
I realize there might be those who thought her just nuts, but I’d argue she was misunderstood. Most of what she professed was grounded in respectably established concepts. True, she was known to have fantastical notions, and we aren’t certain to what degree she took them seriously. I must note, however, that even her most far-fetched stories are difficult to disprove. She might just have returned to her far-off planet Zatar. We can’t really know. Essentially, she raises the question whether perhaps someone’s “craziness” isn’t crazy at all. It could be genius the rest of us don’t understand.
Michele was not blind to her imperfections and strove to improve until the end. Granted, she could be exhausting. At least she was mindful of maintaining her integrity and willing to look where she faltered. At times I’d point out when she was asking for too much or being unnecessarily bossy. She appreciated my honesty and stopped expecting bank tellers to make her photocopies and get her envelopes. Together Michele and I worked on her swan song. “My Gift of Destruction” was the title she gave to her cancer journey because this dichotomy was her theme. Her chosen totem was the Black Witch moth, which in various cultures symbolizes contrary concepts. For some, it is a harbinger of death, and for others, it is a positive omen of good fortune. She had accepted her early denial of her condition and her futile attempts to escape the clutches of cancer. What became paramount to her was jurisdiction over her own conscientious choices. No one was going to tell her what course of action was right for her health.
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