By Deepa Bharath, The Orange County Register
7:50 PM EDT, April 3, 2013
It was about 4:30 in the morning and something stirred Jay Cooper awake.
The retired lawyer, then in his early 80s, heard voices outside his home. He flipped up the blinds and went to the balcony.
That's when he saw them: An entire troop of soldiers on horseback; the French cavalry. He could tell by details on their uniforms.
Cooper rubbed his eyes. He wasn't dreaming. An entire regiment was lined up — on his green belt — ready to charge.
He woke Judy, his wife.
"We are under attack! We must leave. Get in the car — now!"
Judy, shaken, quickly looked outside. Jay looked again too.
The cavalry was gone. The green belt was dark and quiet.
"Honey, there's no one here," she said.
The couple slowly returned to their bedroom.
About 20 years ago, when Jay Cooper sat down to write a novel, he was a healthy, just retired 67-year-old, fully in charge of his faculties.
Cooper had cherished his legal career, but his passion always was storytelling. He had a keen interest in the Middle East.
All of those strings were tied into the adventure of his new hero, Sal Dematteo, an attorney whose life is turned on its head after he sees a dagger that once belonged to the ruthless law giver Hammurabi.
In Cooper's story, the day after seeing the dagger, Dematteo begins having visions of ancient Rome and Judea.
The story plays out with many other characters — some modern, some ancient; some real, some imagined. But, in the end, Cooper says "Hammurabi's Dagger" is about ordinary people and how extraordinary things can happen to them.
What he didn't imagine was something extraordinary was about to happen to him.
Jay Cooper's own visions began a little more than three years ago, after he'd completed his book and was looking for a publisher.
The visions came suddenly, and Cooper had no way of knowing at the time that they were just hallucinations. They seemed very real.
He saw faces in bushes. He saw gang members running around, pumping poisonous gas inside his home.
In a nonhallucinatory moment he bought a bedroom fan to blow away the toxic gas.
Cooper was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a form of progressive dementia that leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning and independent function, a result of microscopic deposits that damage brain cells over time.
An individual who has Lewy Body Dementia often suffers from recurrent, complex, visual hallucinations, typically well-formed and detailed.
When Judy Cooper heard about what had taken over her husband's life, she was shocked and, she admits, spooked.
"It's startling and very weird," she said. "(The visions were) like a self-fulfilling prophecy."
As she started reading a draft of her husband's book, she realized it included many autobiographical elements. The protagonists were lawyers, just like Jay. One of the lawyers was Jewish and extremely messy, much like the man she fell in love with more than 50 years ago.
And there is one scene in the book where one of Jay's characters, an attorney named David Gold, looks out a window and has a vision.
He sees an army of soldiers coming right at him.
Jay Cooper doesn't make much of the similarities between his book and his own life.
"It was a story, that's all," he says.
He tries to separate fact from fiction — even when he's having the worst, most frightening hallucinations.
"I cannot control the content of my vision," he says. "When it comes on, I can feel it come on. Getting through it, that's a different story."
For now, he can still tell himself this: "If you don't think it's real, it ain't real."
Even as he sees the vase on his table transform into a person who then turns around and looks at him, he slaps his own face and commands himself to "snap out of it."
At night, if he feels a vision coming on, he'll get on the floor and do 20 pushups. At 86, he says, that's not a bad deal.
In September, Cooper spoke at the 20th annual Southern California Alzheimer's disease Research Conference. There, participants shared their methods of coping with various forms of dementia.
As Cooper took the microphone, he told the audience: "I'd just like to say… Welcome to the Academy Awards!"
He was kidding of course, but making an important point: A sense of humor, he says, can help you get through the worst day.
"You've got to accentuate the positive."
On Dec. 15, 2012, "Hammurabi's Dagger" was published on Amazon.
When his wife brought him a copy of the yellow paperback, Cooper clutched it to his chest.
"I couldn't believe it," he said.
Then, smiling mischievously, he added:
"I thought, 'This is an illusion. It must be!'"
To learn more: Information on Lewy Body Dementia can be found at lbda.org.
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