Tuesday, September 29, 2015. I was 61 years old. I had an appointment with my new primary care doctor, Jonathan A. Page, M.D. When he walked into the examining room, I greeted him by saying, “I’m being treated for hypothyroidism and hyperlipidemia.” I was an overweight, middle aged man. Dr. Page was a young doctor who had only recently completed his Family Practice residency.
An odd thought flashed through my mind: the meeting of the buffoonish, superannuated, and overweight Falstaff and the young Prince Hal, two Shakespearean characters that fate had brought together at the Garter Inn in London, or in my case, within the confines of a clinic examining room. FALSTAFF: Take away these chalices. Go brew me a pottle of sack finely. BARTENDER: With eggs, sir? FALSTAFF: Simple of itself; I’ll no pullet-sperm in my brewage. Exit BARTENDER: How now!
I asked Dr. Page to check my testosterone level. He refused. He said that he did not prescribe testosterone and explained that it had serious side effects like heart attack. He asked me if I ever had a heart attack. I said no and added, “I’ve never had heart disease of any kind.” The issue of heart attack came up at the consult, but Dr. Page did not suggest that I take a daily baby aspirin as a preventative. Oddly, months later, at a consult in early 2016, Dr. Page did suggest that I take baby aspirin. It was right after his nephew was born. Did the birth of his nephew trigger his suggestion that I take “baby aspirin?” Strange.
Dr. Page told me that he wanted to get a vial of my drawn blood. I interjected, “But I had breakfast this morning.” The doctor said, “That’s fine. As long as you didn’t have a high fatty breakfast like eggs and sausages.” On a later occasion Dr. Page mentioned that he sometimes had nightmares about a man breaking into his house with the doctor coming down the stairs to find him eating eggs and sausages, and that Dr. Page associated that dream with me. That was uncanny.
I admired Dr. Page’s academic accomplishments. He had been an honors graduate in medical school and had earned a Masters in Public Health. He was notably articulate, even for a doctor, with an unusual ability and eagerness to explain medical issues with clarity and depth. He is someone I would have wanted for a friend. I recall something I read in Cosima Wagner’s Diaries: a quote by Richard Wagner. “I shall surely leave the world with my great longing to have seen and known a man I truly venerate, who has given me something, unsatisfied. In my childhood years I used to dream I had been with Shakespeare, had conversed with him; that was my longing finding expression.”
Friday, November 24, 1978. I was a 24-year-old employee at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I had the day off. The previous day had been Thanksgiving. I went to Wanamaker’s Department Store in downtown Philadelphia and browsed the book department. The store had received a shipment of books, The Diaries of Cosima Wagner, Volume 1. Cosima Wagner, wife of the composer and daughter of Franz Liszt, recorded each day of her life with Wagner from the year 1869 till Wagner’s death in 1883. Wagner and his father-in-law, Liszt (only two years Wagner’s senior), shared the special fraternal bond of a lifelong friendship. They would spend hours alone together — playing cards, musing on the symphonies they both aspired to write, bemoaning the ways of the world — and Wagner referred to Liszt as “Brother Franz.”
Years before, I had read in the New York Times that publishers had begun preparing an English-language edition. I had eagerly awaited the Diaries’ release. It was a massive editorial project that involved impressive historical annotation. I had to buy a copy! I ended up reading the book cover to cover. It took me until the end of the year—five weeks—to read the entire book, which was 1,160 pages. I impatiently awaited the issue of volume 2, but I was to wait five years, till 1983, when the English-language edition was published.
Saturday, May 13, 1967. I was a 13-year-old eighth grader. For several years in the mid-1960s the Philadelphia classical music radio station broadcast The Ring of the Nibelung, a cycle of four German-language epic music dramas — The Rhine Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung — composed by Richard Wagner, on four successive Saturday afternoons beginning the next to last week in April. On this Saturday Aunt Zelda let me listen to my favorite opera, Götterdämmerung on the expensive stereo system in her home. She and my mother left me alone in her house all afternoon so I could enjoy the four-hour opera.
One of the crucial junctures in Götterdämmerung occurs in the first act when the hero, Siegfried swears an oath of blood-brotherhood with Gunther, King of the Gibichungs. Siegfried and Gunther drink from a horn filled with red wine mixed with drops of their drawn blood, signifying an irrevocable fraternal bond. Later in the action, Siegfried breaches the oath and is murdered in vengeance by Gunther’s half-brother, who cries out in a rash fury “I have avenged perjury” at the moment he thrusts a spear into Siegfried’s back.
While my mother and aunt were out for the afternoon I got hungry and ate a can of my aunt’s baked beans and drank a whole bottle of her red cranberry juice. When my mother and aunt returned, my aunt went into the kitchen and, spying the empty baked bean can and juice bottle in the trash can, became seriously riled. She rushed out of the kitchen impetuously, yelling at me: “You couldn’t wait! You couldn’t wait! What’s the matter — did you think I wasn’t going to feed you when I got home?” At first, I thought she was joking. I thought “how could a person become infuriated about a can of baked beans and a bottle of juice?” But no, she was serious and she was fuming. My mother was penitent and said to my aunt, “I’ll pay you back for the baked beans and the juice.”