I turned 55 this week. And I couldn’t feel luckier to be middle-aged and bedevilled by sleeplessness, weird fluffy hair and a stomach that looks like where the lunar module landed.
A couple of days before my birthday, on Saturday morning, my brother-in-law John Ogge died. Alone at home while his wife Maria walked the dog to get bread and the newspaper, John poured a coffee, texted his daughter.
John Ogge with his wife Maria. Then – like 389 other Australians that day – he passed away. It was the eighth anniversary of his father’s death. John was just shy of 60, a statistic that would have irked the cricket fanatic in him. Sudden death is part of life. Nobody is immune to its terrible unpredictability, which compounds grief with shock. John wasn’t famous – although he regularly wrote song lyrics for the Coodabeen Champions – but was precious to family and friends. We are now staggering about, discussing autopsies and cremations over Zoom, exhausted and slightly manic and so sad.
And as always when someone is there one minute, gone the next, perspective marches hand-in-glove with death. For me, that means my age is a privilege. I’ve always been someone Oscar Wilde mistrusted, who tells her real birth date (“A woman who would do that would tell anything”) and having the chance to get old and shout its glories is the best gift I could imagine.
My personal roll call of creative, feisty, hilarious, girlfriends who never got to be as old as I am now is too long: Nicki Atkins, Brigitte Casley-Smith, Sara Chivers, Josie Daw, Nuala Quirk Purves. All from cancer, all who could charm birds from the sky and cook or grow anything and love you or tell you off ferociously. All who would do anything to be walking around in this weirdest of springs.
So, I stopped complaining about birthdays a long time ago. They’re a pure celebration. Each one more valuable.
When the alternative is lying in an overpriced box in a funeral parlour, in apricot lipstick and my favourite black bikini – long stipulated as my send-off outfit – quick, give me the landslide upper arms and the veiny hands. They’re proof I’m still beating the ever-shortening mortality odds.
Like my beloved ladies, now John is gone, the cause yet unknown. He left us when he was happiest, his kids launched into adulthood, his marriage his life’s scaffolding.
‘He left us when he was happiest, his kids launched into adulthood, his marriage his life’s scaffolding.’
His brother Chris, my husband, wrote about John after his death: “I grew up hearing the Rolling Stones blaring from his bedroom, where he would be playing bass and not inhaling. He was deeply in love with his kids and Maria. He learned to drive late in life and was ridiculously smart but never showed off about his Mensa mind.” John and Maria met over a decade ago via The Age’s Sam and the City column about love and life. He was in Melbourne, she in Minnesota. When he commented on posts, she was drawn to his dry wit. They started talking online about bad bosses and music.
The night before he died, John texted Chris. He was “rolling along”. They talked footy. Their late mum would have loved Melbourne’s premiership, said John, but he wasn’t “holding his breath” for his trauma-inducing Saints to win a flag. On my birthday, a card from John and Maria: “Live large. Take the scenic route. Hope we can catch up again before 2022.” I wish we could. Sleep tight, John Ogge. Everyone else, cherish those extra candles.
Kate Halfpenny is a regular columnist at The Age.