Batavick: Pondering father's dementia and primordial intuition

The mind is a wondrous thing until you start to lose it. Of course, you don’t literally lose it. It is still around to make you “you” to yourself and others, but it becomes clouded — like a badly tarnished mirror. Short-term memory fails; you can’t seem to find the right words in conversation; and then you start to lose your grip on reality. You become easily confused about what day it is and who your visitors are. Next, you start imagining things and these things become as certain as the nose on your face. That’s now all happening to my wife’s older sister and it happened to my dad.

Doctors call it senile dementia, and brain cells damaged by poor circulation and the ravages of age are the causes. Dementia is not Alzheimer’s disease, though they share similar symptoms. Dementia had gradually shrouded my 85-year-old dad’s mind in 1998, but events came to a head one day when my wife and I stopped at his assisted living facility to take him to the Philadelphia Flower Show.


We found him sitting by the reception desk with a battered green Samsonite. I gave him a kiss on his bristly cheek, and he responded with “You’re late.” It was only 10:40 and we had promised to be there at 10:30. I waved this away with a reference to traffic. The receptionist had overheard the exchange and attempted to smooth things over by saying how excited my father was by his upcoming trip to Florida and that he had been telling everyone about it.

I calmly told her and my dad that we were on our way to the Flower Show and had no intention of going to Florida. I then suggested that we take the suitcase back to his room. In the elevator, dad declared defiantly, “I’m going to Florida.”

When I slipped the key into the lock and opened the door, I stood motionless at the threshold. The room looked like it had been ransacked. The walls were dotted with picture hooks; he had taken down all of the framed family photos and put them in boxes. His dresser drawers were half open and sweaters and shirts hung loosely on their edges, and two partially packed suitcases lay open on the bed.

Dad sat down in his favorite chair and hunched his shoulders. While my wife tidied the room, I asked what he’d been doing and he answered, “Packing.” When I queried why, he said, “I told you. I’m going to Florida.”

Then dad began to spin an outrageous tale about purchasing a hotel in Naples on Florida’s west coast and designating the entire top floor for family visitors. His demeanor had markedly changed. A twinkle appeared in his eyes and a smile played on his face. He stated wistfully that we’d have a wonderful time together, just like the old days. I knew that this was not the moment to argue with him because he seemed so serenely happy.

I tried again to convince him to go to the Flower Show, but he refused. We left without him. Later my sister visited, re-hung all of the photos, and disposed of the boxes. When my brother paid a call a week later, he saw that the packed boxes had returned. This pattern persisted over the next month, and dad mentioned the Florida scheme whenever we talked.

My father died two months later in an ICU. He had been rushed to the hospital when his breathing became labored and other complications had set in. He was 85.

Though I knew dad had moved on to a better place, I tried to make sense of it all after the funeral. Then it hit me. In his dementia, might he have had some inkling, some primordial intuition that a time of passage was about to begin? In his confused and anxious mind, could he have interpreted his waning life force as an impending move toward the light, and was his desire to be with family “just like the old days” a yearning to be reunited with all those who had preceded him in death: my mom, his parents, and his sisters and brothers? And was the fantasy of having bought a hotel his unique way of framing his premonition?

For the people of my dad’s generation, the Sunshine State represented a veritable heaven on Earth, but what was the meaning of the hotel? It may have been his metaphor for a dwelling in the afterlife, for the Bible promises, “In my Father's house are many rooms.” I’ll never know for sure. The answer may lie beyond in a distant, ethereal, and welcoming place where, for all I know, the male residents wear white belts and Hawaiian shirts.