Trying to Understand the Grim Cosmic Jokes of Life

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 4.48.27 PMRussell Baker turned 89 last week and I wrote about An American in Washington, one of his funnier books, and mentioned Growing Up, his Pulitzer-winning memoir. Ever had a few words in a book strike you like a bolt of lightning and help you see the world in a new way? That was Growing Up.

Here’s Baker describing the day when his father was taken to the hospital and he was reassured that his dad would come back home. Baker was five and his best friend, Kenneth, was seven.

When Kenneth walked right up to me, though, he stared at me with such a stare as I’d never seen.

“Your father’s dead,” he said.

It was like an accusation that my father had done something criminal, and I came to my father’s defense.

“He is not,” I said.

But of course they didn’t know the situation. I started to explain. He was sick. In the hospital. My mother was bringing him home right now….

“He’s dead,” Kenneth said.

His assurance slid an icicle into my heart.

“He is not either,” I shouted.

“He is too,” Ruth Lee said. “They want you to come home right away.”

After his father was brought home to be viewed by the family, Russell is being comforted and is told that he’d someday understand. But what he remembers is this:

That day I decided that God was not entirely to be trusted. After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic and began to sense any happiness that came my way might be the prelude to some grim cosmic joke.
Before I read Growing Up some 30 years ago I had never understood why I so distrusted the world. A few days after I turned 10 my dad had died unexpectedly and I never had understood why all the pain and anxiety never left. The words in Baker’s book weren’t a cure but understanding how he saw his father’s death—and learned to live with it—helped.

I recently talked about Growing Up with John Pekkanen, a writer and good friend. He’s had a successful life with a good family and a career full of award-winning articles and books. When he was a teenager, his beloved older brother, a Navy pilot, was killed taking off from an aircraft carrier. It shattered his family and his sense that life was good.

When we’ve talked about our journalism careers, he’ll sometimes bring up the powerful imprint of our early experiences on our lives. He says that he still sees dark clouds every time things seem to be going well. He, too, loves Russell Baker’s Growing Up and appreciates what words can do to heal. But for him, too, the pain and anxiety never go away because of what Baker called some grim cosmic joke.

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