By Randolph Fiery
Neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book, HALLUCINATIONS, was published in 2012. I really enjoyed reading it and I decided to send him an e-mail about my experiences with my grandfather’s hallucinations. Several days later I received a letter from Dr. Sacks – hand written with a fountain pen. He told me that he was moved by my recollections of my grandfather’s visions and the wise way in which my grandmother dealt with them.
Dr. Sacks died in 2015, but I’ve been thinking about him again now. He was internationally recognized for his brilliance in the field of neurology, for his eloquence in writing, and for his humor and passion for living. But for me it’s his kindness that stands out. This great man had taken time out of his busy day to write a thoughtful letter to a stranger. As I look back, I think that what Dr. Sacks liked about my story was the practical and respectful way in which my grandmother had taken care of both an old man and a young boy.
So here’s what happened in West Virginia in the 1950s when my family lived next door to my grandparents. I was about five years old when I began spending a lot of time with them. After a few months my grandmother gave me a job – one without payment because as part of the family I was just expected to help out. Because of his Parkinson’s disease my grandfather was slipping into what is now called dementia. Pop’s memory was failing and his hands shook badly. He was starting to burn holes in his clothes as well as in the chairs, rugs, and couches. I was fascinated with fire and rather than admonish me about its dangers, Granny put me in charge of my grandfather: she taught me how to use matches safely and to light the cigars and pipes that were a common and frequent part of Pop’s world. I was extremely vigilant in attending to my job of watching my grandfather and making sure he did not burn himself or burn down the house.
Some people might think that giving a five-year-old that level of responsibility was inappropriate. But it not only helped Pop, having to monitor his use of matches also brought me close to a smart and wise man who knew a lot about life. My father was a construction worker and often at home only on weekends, but he had to take care of many responsibilities around our house so he had little time to spend with his children. My grandfather became the man who could pay attention to me and teach me many wonderful lessons. Even though my grandfather was declining both physically and mentally, I was able to spend hundreds of hours with him as he taught me to garden and to fish. The job my grandmother had given me taught me responsibility, it gave me confidence, and it became the way I learned skills from my grandfather that have been useful for living in the world.
But that’s only half the story. One evening I was sitting on the couch watching Pop smoking as he sat in his rocking chair. Out of the blue he said, “Randolph, quit bothering Mr. Barnes. Get off his lap and move over on that couch.”
I looked around and could not see any “Mr. Barnes.” I said, “Grandfather, there’s nobody here!” I began to argue with him and that only served to agitate him more. After a few minutes of commotion my grandmother came into the room. Pop informed her about my rude behavior toward Mr. Barnes. Granny then said, “Randolph, you need to be respectful to your grandfather and move over on the couch. Mr. Barnes was a good friend to your grandfather and, years ago, when he came to visit, he always sat right there.”
I moved over to a different seat on the couch. Grandfather was satisfied. Later my grandmother explained that Pop was getting old and that sometimes when people got old they were able to see people they used to know. She said Mr. Barnes had died long ago and Pop was getting much older, much closer to death and to Mr. Barnes. From then on, whenever grandfather saw people, I did not argue with him – and I was not scared. I was able to respectfully do what he asked me to do.
My grandmother had managed what could have been a large problem in a way that opened up good solutions for all of us. Viewed in the context of standard mental health treatment, Pop was having hallucinations, but she treated his perceptions as a normal part of his aging process and gave me a way to understand his behavior. I became interested in those things that grandfather could see but I couldn’t.
Looking back I am touched again by the quiet wisdom of my grandmother who understood my needs and the fragile path of impermanence that my grandfather was walking. Grandfather knew he was helping me to learn important lessons, and I knew I was helping him when I lit his pipe or cigar. My grandmother had not used the standard way of dealing with “crazy visions” but instead she drew on the wisdom of the heart. Both she and Dr. Sacks possessed the ability to be kind and to show compassion. These are qualities greatly needed in this big old goofy world we live in.
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From the Editor: Randolph Fiery and I share a very great appreciation for Oliver Sacks: he was brilliant both intellectually and emotionally, deeply skilled in taking care of his patients and in relating to the people around him. But it seems that he never ventured into exploring areas of reality that are central to this publication. For WINNpost experiences of the “unseen” are important to consider as potentially valid and significant. “Hallucinations” may be glimpses of other dimensions of reality and definitely not just part of a disease process.