In the middle of the night I stared at the ceiling convinced that I had the one strain of flu impervious to vaccination and that, considering my advanced age, I would surely die, if not by morning, certainly within a few days. I wondered, swathed in my self-pity and farewell world speeches, why my husband slept soundlessly, his back turned to me as if he’d already gone on with his life.
My despair was interrupted three times by my husband mysteriously getting out of bed, naked, of course, since he’s not worn pajamas since he was six or seven, to fetch a towel from the bathroom to wipe up a pool of vomit deposited by our dog Punchy. I feigned sleep. Because who could expect me, in my dire state, to get up to help? The nighttime vomiting was part of a three-day saga resulting from Punchy’s enthusiastic embrace of a new toy. A handful of the thick yellow bits of the kibble ball were still sitting on the edge of the sink from the night before. That’s how low we’ve sunk.
The combination of my being deathly ill, my husband’s profound lack of concern, and the echoing belly grunts of our puking dog made for a long and hideous night.
When morning finally came and I was still alive, I stayed perfectly still hoping that two DayQuil tablets would magically appear and that I wouldn’t have to get up to go find them. My husband had gone downstairs (in his robe, of course) to tend to the dogs and make coffee and had been gone for what seemed like centuries. I decided that he had made coffee for himself and his friend who is staying with us for a few days and they were drinking it at the kitchen table while I lay snivelling alone upstairs.
In what was, I believe, an heroic effort to right myself, I risked being seen in my utter and complete dishevelment and went to the hall linen closet to find the DayQuil which I took immediately like it was quinine delivered by airlift to treat my advanced malaria. I crept back into bed where I waited for the cure. A cure which eventually came to my faithless, sorry self, if only for a while.
The most important thing about going to the dentist is underwear selection. I thought of that today after the x-rays but before the cleaning with the little screaming air drill started. I thought of how much worse it would all be if my underwear bunched up and I had to readjust myself, as men say, I love that, I need to readjust myself, just when some vital scraping is occurring.
You can’t just hold up a finger and mouth ‘wait a minute’ at the hygienist and then tug at your jeans. It’s not befitting as people used to say, not befitting someone of my station. I’m not nine. Sit still, I tell myself. Stop fidgeting. Stop thinking about your underwear. Don’t second guess yourself.
They make me wear sunglasses at the dentist. The first time I joked that they made me feel like Ray Charles and their big ‘oh dear we shouldn’t say such things’ looks were searing. Ray Charles wore sunglasses, okay? It’s not some huge racist thing to say I felt like Ray Charles when I was wearing sunglasses. Jesus, I wanted to say. Don’t you know who I am? I’m way ahead of you on this being on the right side of everything.
I was supposed to get a crown replaced today in addition to the cleaning but they screwed up on time and I got to reschedule. It was an enormous gift that made me happy the entire day, my escape from all the whirring and little sucking up hoses. Laying there during the cleaning, I remembered dear Dr. Potter, my dentist from long ago when I was divorced and making $5 an hour. He sang to me. She broke her tooth on a gummy bear and now she knows life’s not fair.….and he let me pay off the $250 charge for a crown over the course of a year. He retired and I stopped going to the dentist for a long time which was a mistake but one that got lost in a forest of mistakes.
Today I asked my current dentist, the one with a butch cut and 3 day beard, if anyone liked coming to the dentist. He said, “A few people do but it seems weird to me.” He should try singing.
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.
I know because I just laughed all the way around the block remembering the panic and peril in the utterer’s voice, the great sense of urgency, the many eyes of the neighbors focused on us, two people, two dogs and two leashes. It was several years ago but it seems like yesterday.
Thinking of this, like I have dozens of times, I had to cover my mouth laughing because I tend to be a loud laugher and being an older loud laugher just attracts the diagnosticians so I quieted myself down. Still, it’s hysterical, even thinking about it right now. Oh my. “Hold this. My pants are falling down.”
The person who originally uttered these moving words (so to speak) was walking around the block with me. He was bemused by my enjoyment of this shared memory but not laughing outright which he rarely does anyway.
Everybody raves about Costco but I’ve resisted joining figuring I was done with the world of Big Food when my kids grew up and left home. I used to go to Sam’s Club and buy vast quantities of pasta and lemon pepper. I still have the lemon pepper I bought there fifteen years ago and, yes, it still smells nice and lemony and peppery. I take it out just to sniff now and then, reminiscing, I guess, about life when I thought lemon pepper would be so swell to have around.
I remember buying a giant jar of pickles, a jar so big you had to hug it to bring it in the house. My younger daughter was crazy about pickles then so I bought it for her, her own personal jar, but then we had a big fight about her not putting the jar away and I picked it up, hugging it like a toddler, all the way outside where I heaved the sucker, pickles and all, into the trash. So my memories of steroided food are not all great. That said, as they say, I took my friends’ advice to “go to Costco” when I told them we were having a candidate fundraiser at our house tonight.
“Get a deli platter! It’s cheap! And easy! And so lovely.”
So I tooled out to the far suburbs this morning, all set to pick up a deli platter and maybe a fruit platter or a veggie platter, too, but when I got to the deli counter there was a wooden box with a slit in the top. “Put your deli platter order here.” There was a stack of forms and a bunch of short stubby pencils. Huh?
“So how long does it take to get a deli platter?” I asked the woman behind the counter who was washing her hands and looking at her hair in the mirror over the sink.
I was stunned. Incredulous. I don’t have 24 hours! I wanted to say. But I just said “crap!” and started pushing my cart in circles around the giant boxes of strawberries. Panic is the enemy. Panic is the enemy. A frequent recitation of mine, this time it was true. I needed to stay calm. Think about how to construct my own deli platter which, over the course of 10,000 years, I have done plenty of times. But in Costco, the task seemed gargantuan.
I bought sliced cheese and salami, both in huge double packs, a box of crackers with six boxes of crackers inside, a stack of three containers of olives, which I bought because it had such a cute handle, and then I bought a forty-pound bag of pita chips and enough hummus to pave the way back to the Middle East. I moved on to fruit.
I bought a box of eight freak kiwis that were yellow and not green inside, I don’t know why, and two perfectly round watermelons roped together in netting which made them easier to carry, like you could sling them over your shoulder like a baby or over your arm like a purse, the cleverness of it impressed me but I didn’t need two watermelons which quickly became beside the point. The clock was ticking.
I bought a river of blueberries, a basketful of raspberries, and fat strawberries, all in big plastic containers suitable for housing a hamster family. And then I decided I should get some nuts so I could have little dishes of nuts surprising people when they sat down in various places. I always like a lot of nuts so this seemed like a deluxe idea to me.
Except the nuts were in bags larger than my backpack. There were no small nuts. Jesus, I thought, I’ve got to get out of here. Then I looked down and saw that I’d bought a bin of small chocolate chip cookies which were sitting on top of the trough of big chocolate chip cookies and, realizing I’d forgotten the one when I got the other, I looked for a place to stow the bin but I was standing amidst the khaki pants at the time so I walked, like the little rule-observant nerd that I am, all the way back to the bakery to put them in the right place.
And then I got to the check-out where the guy rat-a-tat-tatted at me like we were in some big contest with the other check-out lines, like Step on it, Sister! and then the card reader rejected my card. Yeah. Can you imagine, after all I’d been through? The cashier shuffled his feet and stared at me. I was killing his time, you know. So I came up with a Plan B which worked miraculously but will be tomorrow’s panic. It was a rough first day at Costco is all I’ll say, my foray back into the land of Big Food has left me weak and overwhelmed with watermelon. Take me home to Trader Joe’s.