The recent passing of Andrew Peacock hit me harder than I expected. But while I feel closer to the end, I feel fortunate to still be here.
The recent death of my friend Andrew Peacock brought on, I’ll admit, a rare feeling of mortality. And the fragility of life at my age. To be honest, I had never truly grasped the thought of the tenuous hand we have on this thing called life. Even when I was told more than ten years ago that I had terminal cancer with at most 12 months to live unless I could get a rare liver transplant. Which I got. And a truly precious life bonus began.
This maudlin discourse was prompted by a memory of the first time I met Andrew Sharp Peacock in about 1972 at the National Press Club in Washington. There were four of us there. Peacock, me, Melbourne Herald correspondent Peter Costigan (later Lord Mayor of Melbourne) and Ross Mark, an Aussie-born Fleet Street journo who was prestigiously Dean of the White House press corps. Not rubbish, if I say so myself.
With Peacock’s death, I suddenly realised I was the only one left. But what satisfying lives we had all led. And (I hope) I’ll continue to lead. On Andrew’s death, I tweeted: ‘Vale Andrew Peacock. You were my Best Man in more ways than one’. He was the Best Man at my wedding to Jacki Weaver, but our deep friendship stretched internationally over the decades. From back when I never dreamed I would ever become a politician, start my own political party, and get elected to the Australian Senate.
Our apparent chalk and cheese relationship became so close that after I confided in him that I was going to ask Jacki to marry me we had some ‘deep and meaningfuls’, which prompted him to ask Margaret St. George to be his wife.
Peacock’s renowned public vanity (the Colt from Kooyong, the Sunlamp Kid) was something I played on and teased him with. On one birthday I asked him how old he was. ‘Fifty-five’. I said ‘Really? You don’t look it’.
As he preened, I delivered the kicker: ‘You look much older’.
At our last lunch at the Rockpool in Melbourne about a year before he died, I handed Peacock a cruel riposte from a Twitter cynic who had, coincidentally, passed on an observation that very day. Which I, naturally, passed on to my friend.
I said: ‘Andrew, it was pointed out to me, just this morning, how I achieved something in Canberra you never did’.
‘I led my party to success’. Bit cruel, but technically true.
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Peacock’s death, even at 82, did jolt me (to my surprise) about the vagaries of life. At the end of my autobiography, The Human Headline, I ran an honour roll of journo colleagues who had died. There were more than 30 of them.
Flippantly, it reminded me of the old man joke about how you checked the death notices in the local paper each morning to see if he got a mention. And the Irish joke, the longer you live, the sooner you die. That, and death being the greatest kick of all, that’s why they save it ‘til last.
In recent years, that honour roll has sadly lengthened. A former fiancée, Michele Baker, and old dear friends like Maggie Eckhardt and Carla Zampatti have died.
So, what does it tell you as a survivor? To me, there is a danger here. I fear it makes you more selfish. Stuff it…live your life. Day by day. To hell with everybody else. I can understand the sentiment, and a large part of me embraces it.
It reminds of the braggadocio I was warned about when I had my organ transplant ten years ago. They give you a brochure that warns you of things not to do (alongside the 80 pills you took each day, I now take three). The transplant brochure advises you not to make any major financial decisions in the first 12 months after your transplant, and not to make any emotional decisions – like ending a marriage.
What’s it to do with them? I talked to surgeons about this. The drift is, that with a new lease on life, having cheated death, you may feel invincible. It is a fair call. You have been given a treasured life extension. My marriage did end within two years of my transplant surgery, but I never connected the two.
It truly surprised me that I reacted so emotionally to the death of Andrew Peacock. He was 82 after all and had had significant medical problems. I’ve had mine too and I am in my seventies. Do we think we are invincible? Indestructible? That the Grim Reaper will never come knocking on our door?
He was 82 after all and had had significant medical problems. I’ve had mine too and I am in my Seventies. Do we think we are invincible? Indestructible?
I had a mother who died at 69, and a wonderful mother-in-law who died on the operating table at 63. I now realise how blessed I am that I am one of four children who are all still alive beyond 70. Not many families have that privilege.
Recently a close family friend was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was 37. He died only six weeks after his terminal diagnosis, two days after he got married.
That hit me two ways. One, because of the raw pain it caused people I love. Two, I got liver cancer as well. I survived. He didn’t. Why? Life’s a bugger. (There are complicated medical reasons here like cancers metastasising from other infected organs and transplants being therefore impossible, but it still cut deep).
My fear, to be honest, as I face my final countdown on this planet, is that I will become more selfish, more alone. My hope is that I will spend more time, more constructive, meaningful time, helping people less fortunate than I have been. While planning and writing this article I decided to do a weekly stint at a Melbourne soup kitchen.
I remember my mantra from radio and TV (before I became a senator). I said that the only difference between politicians and old people is that they got there first. Well, I’ve now got there. Thank you, Andrew Peacock for reminding me. It is sobering.