I turned 23 last month, but I kinda wish I hadn’t.
In my junior year of high school, a particularly health-conscious substitute teacher once showered my literature class with the benefits of drinking red wine.
“Seriously,” he said. “Two glasses a day’ll lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and even help you live longer. You think I’m kidding — here.”
Instead of pouring us minors a glass, he referred to an article in Time or Newsweek and carried his claim to the whiteboard. A slim and well-balded man, he casually dropped a dubious statistic during his spiel: The average person reaches their physical and intellectual peak at 23.
I don’t feel like I’ve reached any peak. I feel like one of those feral children whom society discovers too long after those crucial formative years — inept and critically hamstrung. I imagine time as a charging locomotive with my ankle shackled to the driving wheels, and I’m missing checkpoints. What is another year without all of the time-sensitive pieces of the human experience?
I tend to wax existential most when I’m stocking muffins or dinner rolls. I work in the bakery of a local grocery store, where sometimes nothing seems more inconsequential than drizzling icing on strudel bites.
Part of my job requires me to write on cakes. Several times a week, I squeeze out happy birthday messages for Ashleys, Johns and a lot more nameless moms and dads.
In the past, I’ve wondered if this granted me a modicum of immortality — me writing on birthday cakes. People take pictures of them. My mother still keeps a few snapshots of me blowing out candles. How many times has my jittery handwriting landed in another family’s photo album? What if that’s really the extent of my legacy?
A few weeks ago, I argued in an essay for the indifference of the universe and nearly robbed myself of all my romantic ideals. In my research, I discovered the Latin phrase, sub specie aeternitatis, or “from the perspective of the eternal.”
Through that looking glass, everything one can accomplish over a lifetime becomes meaningless. Humanity’s greatest achievements past and future turn arbitrary, swallowed up by a dispassionate void.
In my assignment, I insisted that one creates self-worth, but I desperately don’t want to believe that. I can handle — prefer, maybe — a transitory existence, but a truly indifferent universe is more than a sobering reality. Without predetermined value, it’s a woeful one.
I don’t know if I can stomach cosmic autonomy. The thought resonates like another word for desolation. I can’t win if life is simply a carnal exercise.
Last month, a middle-aged couple approached me to add something to a bakery order. The woman reached into her purse and handed me a photo to be scanned and printed on a sheet cake. It was a candid shot of a young man with brown curly hair, smiling at the camera with an emphatic thumbs-up.
“He was a really thumbs-up kind of guy,” the woman said.
He was? I tensed up with the order sheet in my hand and held my breath.
“We’re celebrating Dane Day on Nov. 8,” she continued. “Did you know the mayor named that day to honor our son — the mayor of Moorhead? We still can’t believe it. We’re so proud.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s wonderful.” I didn’t know the circumstances, but they throttled my insides. The next day I looked up the family’s name.
In April of last year, Dane died of a cardiac arrest shortly after rushing to help a 12-year-old neighbor who had burned himself in a grill explosion. I remembered reading the story in the paper during one of my breaks. Dane would have turned 23 this year.
On a negligible earth, perhaps humility is the only reasonable response to anything. If so, Dane justified his life through one of the rare ways anyone can: true, enviable selflessness. A profound connection with another human being.
What have I done? I’ve written on cakes.
An elderly customer surprised me last month with a birthday present: a handful of gourmet chocolates, all purchased individually. The kindness of the gesture still moves me to a near paralysis.
When I think about it, I’m temporarily spared of the crippling weight of patrimony. My mere existence matters to a 76-year-old man. I can get happy about that, but how many passing courtesies does it take to validate the rest of a lifetime? I’m 23 now.