Billy Graham frail in body, lion in spirit

For half a century, he trotted the globe, Bible in hand, a dashing, wavy-haired figure of history preaching to 210 million people in 185 countries.

Now nearing 90 -- his birthday is Friday -- Billy Graham spends his days in his mountaintop home in Montreat, relying on a walker to navigate the trek from bedroom to study. His voice is now soft, his hair snow-white. He's watched over around the clock by a nurse and a trusty golden retriever named Sam.

The world now comes to Graham, on CNN, Fox, a few newspapers and a trickle of guests.

Like so many others battling old age, the Charlotte-born Graham tires easily, naps often, is sometimes lonely and has great difficulty hearing. In conversation, his responses aren't as quick as they once were. Macular degeneration is slowly stealing his sight, denying him one of the chief pleasures of his life: reading the Bible.

A widower for more than a year now, he still grieves daily, even hourly, for Ruth, his wife of nearly 64 years and the woman whose picture brightens the rooms in the house she designed and decorated.

But for all the loss, those around Graham say his mind remains sharp, his memory strong. And like the young preacher whose calendar was ever-full, the elderly Graham still prefers to focus on the future: on that day he'll see Ruth again in heaven and finally get to gaze on the face of Jesus, whom he has served faithfully since his conversion at a Charlotte revival in 1934.

"I've discovered that just because we'll inevitably grow weaker physically as we get older, it doesn't mean we must grow weaker spiritually," Graham, still the evangelist, said in response to questions e-mailed by the Observer. "Our eyes ought to be on eternity and heaven -- on the things that really matter."

Around his house, Graham answers to "Daddy" whenever any of his five children visit and to "Daddy Bill" if any of his many grandchildren or great-grandchildren pop in.

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