Parts of it were funny. And other parts were humiliating.
And even though I’ve told the story before, it deserves another telling, if only to show that maybe humiliation can diminish over time while the humor of a thing can grow.
I went to New York in July of 2015 to get a BlogHer Voice of the Year award for an essay I wrote about hearing loss called Blindsided. The person who told me I’d won, Rochelle Dukes Fritsch, a good friend also from Milwaukee, won for her remarkable essay What’s Behind My Tears for Ferguson which I wish I could link for you but can’t. We were flabbergasted, astonished, but both of us knew we’d written really good essays, pieces with meaning and importance. The awards were well-deserved and we glowed about being recognized in this important way for weeks before the big conference in New York. Still, I dreaded the trip for all the reasons I’d written about in my essay. Hearing loss had weakened me, taken the wind out of my sails. I was worried about navigating it all. But I went anyway.
On the night of the award presentation, we were summoned, along with a couple dozen other award winners, to a champagne reception on an elegant balcony overlooking a vast room where the names of the winners scrolled on a giant screen. Later, we would go down the stairs from the balcony to the big stage in front of a sea of people and have our picture taken. In the back of the balcony, past the champagne servers and the little bunches of people taking selfies and congratulating each other was a table with the BlogHer VOTY awards arranged in alphabetical order.
My name wasn’t there.
Rochelle’s name was there. She picked up the fancy box with her award and held it to her chest. Then she joined in the search for mine. We went through the rows of awards a dozen times. No Jan Wilberg. I checked the emails on my phone to confirm that I’d actually won. I did this while wearing a name tag identifying me as a BlogHer VOTY. Maybe I was some kind of auxiliary VOTY, I thought. A runner-up. Maybe I was supposed to be at the root beer reception. I checked the BlogHer website. Maybe they’d reconsidered. and I hadn’t been paying attention. No, my name was on the list of winners, plain as day. Jan Wilberg for Blindsided.
“Here. I think they just got your last name wrong.” She handed me a box with the name Janice Winkler. “That stuff happens all the time. This has to be you. Here.” And so I took the box and decided it must be mine but wondered hard how Jan Wilberg had become Janice Winkler.
We joked about it. I untied the ribbon, opened the box and showed the lovely glass award to people I knew only because of their blogs. We had instantly become birds of a feather and I wanted comfort and support from my new flock. “Look! They got my name wrong.” Oh, they’ll fix it, they all said. So funny. To come all this way and have your name wrong but so what, that’s life. It’ll make a great blog post. Ha, ha, ha.
Then, Rochelle nudged me hard and gestured over her shoulder. Behind us, Janice Winkler’s name was scrolling on the giant screen. She had won an award for Photography. For a photo of two people skydiving. Which is what I felt like I was doing at that very moment. I crammed her award back in its box and tried to retie the ribbon. It looked awful, like a present a kid had swiped from under the Christmas tree and then put back hoping not to be discovered. I was terrified someone would see me fumbling with Janice Winkler’s award. That I was wearing a hideous striped red and black shirt didn’t help. The thief wore neon.
My goal then was to melt into the crowd, pretend I’d put my award somewhere so I could handle the champagne with both hands. I felt naked though like I’d lost my pass to the Jamboree. So when I spied the leader of BlogHer coming down the stairs, I went up to her and told her that somehow my award hadn’t been on the table.
“Are you sure you’re a winner?”
Here’s where the humiliation part of the story picks up. She waved me away like I’d somehow wandered into the wrong room on my search for the Needlepoint Convention. This old broad with her two hearing aids and her hideous shirt must be lost because she couldn’t be one of us, nope. I was incredulous. Me, an award winner, albeit without the physical evidence, being waved off like a champagne server with an empty tray. It was a scorching, eye-blinking, I wanna call my mom to pick me up from school moment which I will probably never forget. There was more to it, you know there would have to be, more back and forth, more questions and answers. But what I remember most clearly were the accordion folds of my age, my disability, the disregard, the embarrassment, and my horrible shirt, a squeezebox of humiliation.
But I overcame. There was no choice. And there was Rochelle, my kind, funny, compatriot friend. I decided to act like I belonged there, like I was a winner, isn’t that what they say to do? So that’s what I did. I drank champagne and later I stood on the stage with all the other winners, next to Rochelle, and had my picture taken. A few months later, my award came in the mail. No ribbon, but with the right name. It’s right here sitting on my bookshelf, looking like it belongs there.