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Laughter and Forgetting 

Not all caregivers are saints and M.A. Harper's new novel, The Worst Day of My Life, So Far, sets out to prove it.

Jeanne Buchanan Roth is a smart, analytical, fortyish, divorced native New Orleanian who assumes the full-time job of caring for her mother, who has Alzheimer's. When faced with the daily challenge of this mother/daughter role reversal, Jeanne is by no means suddenly transformed into Florence Nightingale. In fact, she defines her success caring for her mother with this simple observation: "Every morning that I woke up ... and realized that I had not yet poisoned her, nor put my head in the oven, I figured that I was doing okay."

Jeanne is Uptown born and bred, with a taste for late-night chocolate and bourbon. Her upbringing, like many baby boomers, was overseen by a working father and a stay-at-home mother. In fact, not only did Velma Buchanan keep house and raise the children without the benefit of cable television, she also managed to greet her husband, C. Jay, at the end of the day, perfectly made up as a New Orleans version of Donna Reed.

Velma and C. Jay's relationship was a paragon of 1950s America, and their love for one another was insatiable. "It would have been embarrassing, but they were just so classy about it, like a couple of screen stars," writes Harper. Adding to Jeanne's present chagrin, Velma was an undaunted and gallant mother, capable of shooting out the roar of a hurricane with mere cap pistols. With such a role model -- and without the benefit of Velma's beautiful looks -- Jeanne can't help but feel inadequate. Even at the age of 8, she realizes, "I flunked both competence and bravery. I washed out."

Nevertheless, Jeanne forges on through her life. She attends Tulane and finally feels she fit in as one of the "hopped-up-on-coffee intellectuals." She reads palms, is an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and, after a couple of years, becomes pregnant, drops out, and moves to New York City to be with her fellow dropout husband.

The marriage doesn't last, and after 20 years, Jeanne finds herself alone again. Her son, Rad, is off at college struggling with his own complicated set of circumstances, her ex-husband has remarried, and her parents, now more anachronisms than Hollywood stars, have retired to the country. C. Jay spends his days filling the brick house up with old radios, magazines, swords and prints of Highlanders, while Velma watches C. Jay and loses precious parts of herself. By the time C. Jay dies, Velma is no longer self-sufficient, and Jeanne moves to "Alzheimer's Planet."

In much of this book, Harper is dealing with memory -- not only Velma's loss of memory, but also Jeanne's struggle to reconcile her own memories of her parents, marriage and son. Ultimately, what she discovers is memory's fragility. Harper's descriptions of Velma's decline are shrewd and astute: "She is unlearning things, in roughly the same order that she learned them as a toddler. Unlearning. Delores Bordelon thinks that this is all about memory loss, and it's not. It's about personhood loss." This may not be a great epiphany for either Jeanne or the reader, but it is one of many daily observations by a caregiving daughter. "Except for Mama," Jeanne observes, "I was in solitary confinement."

The Worst Day of My Life, So Far is Harper's second book after her critically acclaimed For the Love of Robert E. Lee. It shouldn't be the darkly funny book that it is; Oscar Wilde wrote of the drawing room, not the cancer ward. However, it is testimony to Harper's skill that she not only pulls it off, but makes this terrible situation somehow more accessible for the rest of us. It's not a cold-hearted person who says, "chocolate and couple of shots of bourbon and a yearbook of fat dead people have been known to induce actual laughing fits." It's someone hanging on the best they can using humor, not as a crutch, but as a lifeline.


PAPERCUTS

Students of the Center has published four new books of writing by students from eight area public middle and senior high schools: Sankofa; Locked Away and Lifted Up; Rumors of War, Visions of Violence; and Young Minds. Topics covered in the four books include African-American and local history, effects of incarceration on family life, and oral histories of veterans and refugees of foreign wars. The books are all available at Community Book Center, 217 N. Broad St. (822-2665).

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