No, not the ice cream with Cadbury flake. Though who wouldn’t want to write about those?

This is about another 99 though. Today my grandfather celebrated his 99th birthday– with cake, friends, family and wine (from the sound of the phone call I had to him). Old age is hard. His hearing is almost gone (so much so that I think he thought he was talking to my sister, which is okay by me), his joints are stiff and make him wobbly. Hard for a man who until 10 years ago swam at least an hour every day, rain or shine. But the hardest for all of us is that somewhere between 90 and 99, he’s become senile.

He doesn’t forget the things he knows. That is, he knows who everyone in his family is and what our relationships to each other are. He’s even been able to remember new family members, brought in by birth or marriage (though there he needs some prompting). But anything new — events, news, where we’re going for dinner (or even if it’s been eaten) are like water though sand. I’m not sure where it goes, but it doesn’t stay. He can be like a child: demanding, petulant, stubborn. Even angry.

This is hard for me to see. Harder still for my mother. Hardest yet for my grandmother, his wife of 65+ years. Nana sometimes thinks he’s just not trying. Or is trying, but just to tick her off. I can see it hurts her. It’s like he’s died in some ways but it still with us. The good days become rarer, to be savored and remember the man my mother and I grew up with. A remarkable man who’s already abandoned this shell. One might say we should be glad for the time we had — and it’s true. We’re lucky that this didn’t happen when he was 60, 70 or even 80. I’m lucky I got to know my grandfather so well. He taught me many things, including how to swim and body surf and how to love the ocean. He was fearless as far as I knew, on the land or in the water.

Yet I’m not grateful. I’m selfish and greedy and I miss terribly the man he was. The man who argued about politics (he was a democrat and couldn’t understand why or how anyone with a conscience could be anything else) and a union man to the bone despite his very privilaged upbringing. When I was 10 and there was a grocery strike, he made me promise I would never cross a picket line. Not for anything or any reason. Right and wrong were black and white like that for him. Not easy, but he was seemingly never tempted by immorality or unethical acts. His kindness in his voice. We never doubted his love — I grew up hearing him sing love songs at breakfast to my grandmother. His goodness, like his Irishness, was written on his face. Everyone but his grandchildren and daughter calls him “Buddy,” a nickname given by his mother (she died when he was barely an adult) because he followed her like a shadow. Her Buddy.

His face and voice that are still with us. He still knows me as his granddaughter. And, clearly, still loves me. Though I may wish for more, he’s still my grandfather. And still wonderful.

Happy Birthday Grandpa. I’ll be there when you turn 100 in 2005.

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