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 Corona del Mar, Calif., 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. And as they sat on the bed, perplexed, Judy did what she could to help her husband calm down — she made up a song.
“Armies in the green belt. Armies in the green belt, ta-da-da-da-da.”
Jay sang back:
“Yes, I’m going craaazy.”
Jay’s vision wasn’t real, but it wasn’t a dream or a blast of Alzheimer’s either. It turned out to be something much more unusual.
And even as Jay and Judy Cooper laughed and went back to sleep, they both knew that everything wasn’t all right.
Starting to write
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’d made up detective stories as a child. And when he joined the Merchant Marine at age 18, in World War II, he took his first crack at a novel.
Working the graveyard shift — using coffee, radio patter and writing to stay awake — Cooper spun a story around the dashing detective Martin Lopen. If the book ever became a movie, Cooper imagined, Humphrey Bogart could play Lopen.
But there was no published book and no movie. Cooper left the Merchant Marine and went to law school. Soon, research and work pushed his stories aside.
So when he sat down again, in 1993, he brought unspent passion to the task. He also had a long legal career to draw from, and a keen interest in the Middle East.
All of those were brought 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.
His own visions
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 that she says now is simply the strangest possible coincidence. 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.
Getting through it
“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.”
On Dec. 15 “Hammurabi’s Dagger” was published on Amazon.
When his wife brought him a copy of the yellow paperback, Cooper clutched it to his chest. It was a milestone he never thought he’d reach.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Then, smiling mischievously, he added:
“I thought, ‘This is an illusion. It must be!’ ”