Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Many people ponder death with fear and trepidation, but 64-year-old Mickey Weems faces death with remarkable positivity. Weems was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the spring of 2021 and was given six to 12 months to live. He and his team, co-host Donna Blanchard, producer James Charisma and content advisor and public relations agent Susan Wright created a podcast called “Mickey is Dying.” Weems is doing it for kuleana: responsibility, because he is a teacher and isn’t finished teaching.
Weems has been teaching since the ’80s, and taught at Ohio State University, Columbus State University and University of Hawai‘i, in multiple disciplines: world religions, anthropology, English, psychology, western civilization. Though he is a teacher, he turns the spotlight on his peers, including Abiola Irele, Jennifer Terry, Jarod Scott Soucie, Thomas Kasulis, George Tanabe, Robert Aitken, Edith Turner, Naila Jiddawi and many more. Alluding to Sir Isaac Newton’s quote about standing on the shoulder of giants, Weems says he is “cradled in the arms of giants” – his teachers. He says the best thing about being a teacher is “the things I don’t see until years later.” Former students would come up to him and say he taught them how to think. Incidentally, Weems says his family coat of arms include the motto je pense, which is French for “I think.”
Weems was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the same hospital as his mother. His parents have passed away, but his mother continues to be one of the people who gives him strength and is always with him. He traveled a lot, but when he visited his mother, the two of them would embrace, take a walk with their arms around each other and talk. Weems refers to it as “re-establishing the umbilical cord.”
He was raised on army bases and settled with his family in Jacksonville, Alabama, when he was 12 years old. Later, Weems worked as a lifeguard, a marine and a teacher. He holds multiple degrees: a bachelor’s in philosophy, a master’s in anthropology and folklore, a doctorate in comparative studies and somatic studies. He was in the Individual Ready Reserve for six years, where he trained to be disciplined and to never quit.
“I still have blarney,” Weems says, and explains that “blarney is sent from heaven (or hell) to Irish folk. It is a sweetness in words, a means to charm others by the sound of our voice.” On the podcast’s first episode, Weems’s co-host, Donna Blanchard, asks what he was feeling, and he answers, “a tremendous sense of gratitude.”
He pictures his cancer blooming along his spine like yellow lilies and acting like him: traveling and having an adventure. He attributes the image of yellow lilies to his mother (though yellow roses were his mother’s favorites).
To preserve his lifestyle and stay happy, Weems opted to decline treatment except for two things: one is targeted radiation, which is not painful, but can be tiring; the other is monoclonal antibody treatment.
“One of the things keeping me alive is vanity,” he says in his podcast, laughing. He has been a bodybuilder for decades, and loves dancing to house music, saying “I am an extremely vain man who loves self-discipline, being of service and is sonically driven.”
Blanchard remembers when she consulted for The ARTS at Marks Garage and Weems volunteered there, eager to help in any way, including hauling beer coolers.
One of the episodes in the podcast is called “The Blue Bag,” where Weems comments about straddling the line between the living and the afterlife. He feels as if his parents are right next to him, especially when he touches the blue bag to his forehead. The blue bag contains the medicine from Medical Aid in Dying and gives him tremendo us comfort to know he gets to decide when it’s time to go.
“I have studied every religion I could find, and participated in most of them. Since 2016, I have been a Sufi because of its appreciation of other religions, love of scandal and affinity with music and dance.” Weems says he is an Irish Muslim — he has a tattoo of a crescent moon and shamrock instead of a star.
In a fashion show produced by University of Hawai‘i graduating students, Weems was dressed as a volcano god of Hawaiian myth – Ailä‘au. His costume included a staff, which Weems says makes him feel like Gandalf from “Lord of the Rings” and added swagger to his appearance. The staff ended up being functional for Weems because he actually needed it to walk. Ailä‘au, which embodies fire, makes Weems think of his cremation – something he looks forward to.
Fire has been a significant theme in Weems’s life lately. “I respect fire but don’t fear it,” he says. He talks in the podcast about hiking close to the lava flow on Hawai‘i island when he was 27 and being very careful not to catch fire. Around Memorial Day this year, he started learning fire dance from his life coach Jarod Scott Soucie. Weems attended Lunar Vibes in August, a retreat that celebrates fire arts and is organized by the Trial by Fire community, headed by Dhevhan Keith and Cory Rothwell. Though it is difficult for Weems to stand for prolonged periods without something to lean on, he persevered and danced with an unlit staff. He was exhausted after the event but happy he did it.
In the podcast, Weems reports sleeping a lot as a new normal for him and talks about the changes happening to his body, such as having less energy to exercise. But even if Weems is slowing down, it’s not evident. He’s still lifting weights and exercising. Aside from learning to fire dance, he created a comic book called “Stigmata,” whose main character, Stigma, echoes Weems – he has prostate cancer. Every time this superhero saves a life, his cancer worsens. Stigma is accompanied by multiple other characters whose powers also come with a price. There is no release date yet for the comic book, but Weems has enough material for three to four issues.
“I don’t fear death,” Weems says in episode five of his podcast. He knew it 40 years ago, and he knows it now. When he was 24, he was paddling from Kä‘anapali in Maui to Lana‘i. He made it to Lana‘i, but on his way back to Maui, the trade winds picked up and Weems drifted away for five or six hours, heading towards Tahiti. It got cold and windy and he was sunburnt. He heard a voice, which he believed was his grandmother saying: “Whether you live or die, everything’s going to be fine.” As if in a movie, a cruise ship rescued him, where he encountered Ginger Rogers and sat at the Captain’s table for dinner. After this happened, his good friend Noelle said, “You’re living on borrowed time. You should have died back then.” Weems wishes to have his remains scattered in the same channel where he was lost at sea.
When asked if he was afraid of anything, he replied that he didn’t want to go before his time. He still wants to fire dance. He still has things to teach.
Weems wrote a book called “The Fierce Tribe,” which is about circuit parties, huge gay events for men centered on music and dance. Weems uses his educational background to advocate non-violence among strong, masculine gay men. As a former U.S. Marine, Weems said he was “trained in the art of war,” but by no means advocates bullying. “We must treat it as a disease,” he says of bullying.
“I love his thoughtful honesty,” Blanchard says about Weems. “He’s very forthcoming on mostly any topic and willing to tackle difficult, complex subjects. He’s also very open-minded and willing to change his mind or correct himself based on conversation – that’s way too rare! Of course he also has a wonderful book and real life education that makes it possible for him to cover a wide range of subjects deeply.”
Four years of a weekly interview show on ThinkTech has trained Blanchard to allow their conversation in the podcast to flow organically. Thanks to her conversations with Weems, Blanchard says she’s learned to make the best of each moment. “I’ve gotten better at forgiving myself and moving on with relish in my life,” she says.
Many people fear death. Some people behave like they are already dead while they’re alive: they lack hope, energy and joy. A tragedy much worse than dying.
On the other hand, Weems is dancing his way out. “Kuleana. Debt. Obligation. As long as I can live I shall do my best to do right. I’m hoping we’ll continue with the podcast and have enough that the universe can’t shut me up. Everything we talk about has to help somebody.”
The fire theme in Weems’s life is like Prometheus in Greek mythology — a titan who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to man. Weems is Prometheus and the lessons in the podcasts is the fire that he’s giving to man. We’re grateful to have seen, heard and felt his light, and will keep his spark alive for many years to come.
Renelaine Pfister is a physical therapist and writer based on O‘ahu.