“Missing J”


I just finished “The Equivalents” by Maggie Doherty which explores the beginnings of the Radcliffe Institute in the mid 1960’s. There the poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, the artists Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen all met in this special atmosphere for a year. Each had a stipend and a place to work and they met with the other participants for weekly seminars where each shared their work. The artists were called “equivalents” since they didn’t fit the requirement of advanced scholarly work demanded of other members of the Institute.

I read the book a chapter a night, savoring it totally and loathe to finish it at all, much less quickly. But when I was done the only person I wanted to talk to about it was “J” my close college friend and fellow English major. We had attended the American poetry class together, talked poetry frequently and went to poet readings, including one given by Anne Sexton.

But “J” is in the euphemistically named “memory unit” in Cambridge, so called for those who have lost their memory. She inherited the early onset Alheimer’s that ran through her maternal line, with the first symptoms beginning in her 50’s. Twenty years later there is just her lovely form wandering the halls of the safe and caring atmosphere. She is not available to talk poetry.

The book allowed me to revisit our years at Radcliffe and Cambridge in the 1960’s. It explored the vast changes that took place in those years for many women. I could visualize our dorm rooms, our walks, our talks. Much joy came as I read. But in the end I was left just truly missing “J.”

27 thoughts on ““Missing J”

  1. My mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s in her early 90s. I was able to take care of her for the last decade of her life. It was a helpless feeling witnessing first hand her slow decline and realizing there was nothing I could do to reverse the inevitable. She was the gentlest soul I’ve ever known. Life is not fair.


  2. I went through this with my mom, and now we’re going through it again with my mother-in-law. She turns 97 this week, but she hasn’t recognized any of her children for over five years. It’s hard to call that quality of living.


    1. The hardest is the physical curling in and loss of motor function at the end I think. That came as a surprise since I only knew of the memory loss, not the loss of how to use one’s body.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes – mine othe half’s bigger than me.
        For the sufferer, it must be the glimpses of lucidity that would be worst. It’s a disease that raises questions about the nature of consciousness and the psyche.


  3. Elizabeth, I feel for you – and for your friend J. My mother has two forms of dementia now, alongside other neurological conditions. She recognises all of us still, which is a blessing, but watching pieces of who she is quietly disappearing is heartbreaking. I’m happy you have such strong memories of J. A bittersweet gift, but one I am sure you value highly. Take good care


  4. It is terrible when people lose their memory and so much more. My father had dementia and was bedridden for 8 months till he passed away in September 2016. It is heartbreaking.
    I am reading The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. It is fascinating.


  5. This blog post touches me. I know certain times only a certain person is the one to fill the place. I am sorry she is not available but glad you have memories that are special to you with J in them. It is intriguing when you find a book you don’t want to put down and don’t want to finish!


  6. A touching post Elizabeth. There are times that only the person you shared that special experience with, can fill that place for sharing memories anew.
    Dementia is such a horrendous thief!


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