He says, ‘And where do you live?’
I tell him our suburb, our street. He nods, clarity in his eyes. ‘And they’ve got your phone number? They know where you are?’ He waves his arm to the nurses’ station. ‘If anything should happen?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
He smiles at me.
‘It’s your birthday,’ I tell him again.
‘Is it dear?’ he says and shakes his head. He has always twitched his lips like that before he smiles or laughs. ‘How old am I?’
‘You’re ninety five.’
‘Am I?’ He shakes his head.
I have brought him a photograph, because what do you give a man for his 95th birthday, especially one who has always said, after saying ‘Oh, I don’t need anything’, ‘The more you have, the more you want.’
‘These are the photos we took at your seventy fifth birthday.’ I point to them, dotted around the room, and I wonder what he sees. His children, his son-in-law were living then, he had no great grandchildren. ‘And we took this one when you turned ninety.’
He looks at himself, surrounded by children. He smiles.
‘I’ve been lucky with my family,’ he says, and I wonder again at this, his unflinching optimism, the gratitude he shows for what he has. It must be real. His mind has no capacity for pretence. Is this what fuelled his faith, or was it his faith which gave this fuel? I wish it were not too late to ask.
A silence settles between us.
‘We’ve been away,’ I say to start a conversation.
‘Where have you been?’
‘We went to Paris,’ I say, because last time I said it he talked about the trip he’d made.
‘Oh, practicing your French?’
‘And we went to London too.’
‘To practice your English?’ The laugh plays around his lips before it comes out deep, but never loud.
‘It’s your birthday,’ I tell him one final time. ‘You’re ninety five today.’
He taps his chest with his fingertips. ‘And I’ve never had any serious health issue.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘You haven’t.’
‘It’s my memory, dear, that’s my problem. I forget more than I remember. It’s not a memory, it’s a forgettory.’ Of all the memory jokes, this is Youngest’s favourite.
‘It’s strange, you know, because your memory was remarkable. You were renowned for it.’
‘Was I?’ His lips begin to twitch. ‘I must have worn it out.’ He makes new memory jokes at every visit, recycles others. My favourite is: ‘You don’t need to worry about me, dear. If I ever feel bad, I don’t remember.’
The smell of the lunch has filled his room now, and the nurses are helping people to the table.
‘I have to go, but I’ll be back tomorrow, I’ll bring the boys.’
‘That will be lovely, dear.’ He wobbles when he stands, but his hug has never been stronger.
It will be the hardest of goodbyes.