Let’s begin with the millennium, January first, two thousand. The most vivid memory I have of that day is remembering myself as a child anticipating that momentous event. The memory is a most particular one. I am seven or eight, standing under the huge magnolia tree that fronts the now-abandoned house that had been my maternal grandfather’s birthplace (though I do not know this at the time; in my mind it is simply the Freitas house, since one of my grandfather’s workers by that name and his family were the last occupants). The ground is covered with crisp fallen leaves, their outsides a shining mottled brown with a tan felt mat on the underside. They crunch when I step on them, and since country noises are louder and crisper than any noises since, I can still hear them with a child’s clarity. For some reason I am contemplating the mystery of time, which I find unfathomable and troubling. What event, personal or national, has inspired this musing I no longer remember, but I am fascinated by the year 2000. Numbers have always had a kind of magic for me, particularly round numbers, though I have not yet completed my first decade, but this number particularly fascinates me, the most magical number of all, for it will mark not just the end of a century, but the end of a millennium as well. A momentous date that will more than likely, barring any melodramatic intervention from heaven, come during my own lifetime. I remember counting the years. I will be 72, already half way along the road to 73, when that date arrives. It is an age so improbably ancient I cannot even begin to conceive what it will be like. Merely thinking about it induces an icy vertigo. I know old people are forever complaining about how short life is, a complaint I invariably dismiss as mere grownup blather, for it doesn’t seem at all short to me. Even finishing grammar school seems such a distant prospect that the idea of reaching seventy is totally beyond my grasp. Eons and eons away. For no eight year old can ever truly imagine a time when he will no longer be young, and I am confident that long before I reach the amazing age of seventy, things will surely be arranged better and I will somehow manage to avoid ever becoming so ancient–without, of course, having to die early to avoid such an eventuality. For I have no intention of dying at all. Though I know, intellectually at least, that all living things must eventually come to an end, such is the egotism of youth, I am convinced, at least in my particular case, an exception will be made. If it is difficult to imagine being old, it is impossible to imagine not being at all.
Of course no exception is made and the date does eventually arrive. And most amazing of all is how ordinary the day seems, like the dawn of any other day, and as far as the indifferent universe is concerned, a purely arbitrary mark that in the long view measures virtually nothing at all. Except that I am indeed seventy-two by the calendar and already half way along the road to seventy-three, which does not seem particularly ancient to the person that young boy standing under the magnolia tree has become. I am alive and healthy in a world that seems more beautiful than ever–as long as one keeps his gaze focused under strict control and filters out the dross, which age is most adept at doing. I feel no older than I did at fifty, and fifty seems to me virtually youth. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I long for new worlds yet to conquer.
That is all about to change and the year 2000 becomes for me the measure of something entirely different. The first blip on the monitoring screen comes that February in London. I am lying in my bed in Chelsea in the flat my friend and I usually rent on our trips to London. It is a single bed, more constricted than the double bed I have at home, and for some reason, in adjusting my pillow, my left hand brushes the back of my neck. There is a lump, a quite sizable lump I have never before noticed. I get out of bed to look in the bathroom mirror, as I do every morning while shaving, but have seen nothing out of the ordinary since the lump is so located I need the aid of a hand mirror to view it. Below my left ear and veering at a sharp angle toward the back of my neck, the lump looks even more sinister than it feels to my touch, for it is itself totally without sensation, and I wonder why no one else has drawn my attention to the anomaly.
Though I say nothing to anyone, the discovery is sufficiently disconcerting to ruin what is left of the trip. For I had, years before, also in London, seen such a lump, though far smaller and on another neck far lovelier and whiter than mine. Hers was in a different location, just above the left clavicle, like the tiniest bird’s egg incubating just beneath the whitest skin. The woman who so brazenly displayed that lump for my benefit, though four years my junior, has already been dead for more than a decade.
Back in San Francisco I don’t even wait for the jetlag to subside before seeing my doctor. A lean, slightly stooped man in his early fifties who always peers at me through rectangular-shaped, steel-framed glasses with a look of crafted solicitude, he inspects the lump, feeling it with the tips of his gloved fingers and assures me there is nothing to worry about. It’s only a harmless cyst.
It is my vanity that saves me:
“Harmless or not, I want the ugly thing removed,” I tell him.
So he refers me to a surgeon on the fifth floor of the same building. I know the office well since a much-admired surgeon who operated on my ruptured groin had once been the senior member, but he has, unfortunately, moved on to bigger things in Chicago. The surgeon I am assigned is Romanian, a pleasant looking middle-European type, stocky, with graying curly hair, rather mushy, indistinct features that I am certain I will have trouble recalling the next day, and a very slight accent that becomes more noticeable under stress, as I will soon find out. My primary doctor, he assures me, after a few palpitations, is absolutely right: it is only a harmless cyst, but if my vanity requires its removal, he will be happy to oblige–although, he seems to imply, my vanity will be adding an extra and unnecessary burden onto the City’s already overburdened health system. But before removing the lump, he first wants to try a round of antibiotics to see if he can reduce its size. I am given a prescription and surgery is scheduled in his office for the following Friday.