Review | Just Breathe Normally, by Peggy Shumaker

Nearly five hundred years ago, when the Spanish conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they witnessed an unfamiliar ritual in which the natives celebrated with skulls, flowers, masks, and offerings. The ceremony was a form of ancestor veneration—a long held tradition among Mesoamerican cultures going back some three thousand years. They believed that death was a continuation of life and that the worlds of both the living and dead were deeply intertwined. Today, the celebration survives, in part, in Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It is a day to honor your deceased relatives, or, as Peggy Shumaker observes, a day “to celebrate that we are not among them.” In Just Breathe Normally, a powerful memoir told in the aftermath of a near-fatal cycling collision, Shumaker meditates on the excruciating process of healing, her unstable and abusive childhood, the complex legacies of generations of family, and the mystery of what it means to be alive.

Shumaker uses brief chapters, sometimes a few sentences in length, to immerse the reader in the fragmentary, ineffable quality of memory. It’s as though each scene were a slide in a slideshow, held just long enough to capture its essence. She alternates between an account of her accident and the more fluid, dreamy vignettes of memory. Written in startling lyric prose (“She has shed her body, that ill-fitting disguise, shed the odd costume of this life”) the book opens on a sunny afternoon in Alaska where Shumaker and her husband, Joe, are thrown from their bikes when a teenager carelessly swerves into their path on a four-wheel ATV. With no memory of the traumatic accident, Shumaker turns to Joe for an explanation:

It takes months of telling, Joe finding words again and again. Joe dredges up detail after detail, over and over. It takes months before my mind can see these nuggets not as separate chunks, but as part of one vein, as story.

The story, it turns out, goes all the way back to a small village in the Gudbrands Valley of Norway where Hannah Loften, Shumaker’s great-grandmother, tended seven generations of graves in the family plot. She suffered from “what in those days women didn’t mention to men.” Her husband was saving money to pay for his passage to America and refused to spend it on a doctor. In a brief but poignant chapter titled “Dovetails,” we learn that Hannah’s son and Shumaker’s grandfather, John Moen,

watched his mother suffer, watched her yellow, watched her writhe. He snuck in a midwife when his father was out of sight. . . . He made his mother tea. He held her head when she leaned over the edge of the bed. He planed the boards, fit the dovetails tight.

With the past weighing heavily on her mind, Shumaker examines the nature of her own mortality. While fighting to survive the life-threatening accident, she discovers tumors, develops a pulmonary embolism, and struggles with damage to her third cranial nerve that leaves her left eye weak and unable to remain open. She calls the fresh scar down the length of her torso her “new ornament,” while simultaneously posing serious questions about the emotional scars inflicted by a wounded family. She asks, “Do we take scars as evidence of injury, or as evidence of healing?  Do we bear scars of one life? What about the scars handed down, scars we pass along?”

It is not without humor that Shumaker examines the tragic, and sometimes comic, events of her parents’ lives. Sprinkled intermittently are chapters titled “My Father’s Wives #1” and “My Father’s Wives #2,” all the way up to “My Father’s Wives #5,” in which his last wife, Connie, “has decorated with lace every surface of their trailer.” Wife number two, affectionately called “Crazy Marcia,” was “a bottle blonde with a serious affection for prescription painkillers. We nicknamed her daughters for their passions: the Nympho, the Pyro, the Klepto.” After her father left her mother for good, Shumaker remembers that her mother, “took us to Sears and forced us to buy record albums we didn’t want so she could max out the credit cards.”

These brief lighthearted moments are underscored by the tragic circumstances of Shumaker’s childhood. Her mother, in a legacy of teenage pregnancy, “had four babies and two miscarriages by the time she was twenty-four.” She suffered from debilitating asthma. She drank too much, was physically and emotionally abusive, and once left her children alone for four months to live with her then-current boyfriend. After she died, Shumaker sees her mother in her coffin and observes:

And there it was, her body. It held me once, then pushed me sixteen years ago out into this world. It hit my sister Ginny every day, and the rest of us when we didn’t get out of the way. It cradled each of us, as if we were miracles. It was sexed and sexed and very little loved by men. It was a constant source of confusion for those of us who loved the woman it held. We never knew if that body would be on our side or if it was another threat, disguised as Mom.

Some things never change. Five of the six parts of the book begin with a chapter titled “Constants.” Specifically, Shumaker identifies three: reading, writing, and the great, wide love of Harriet Moen, her grandmother. Shumaker took a sabbatical and spent an entire year with her as Harriet neared the end of her life. In a chapter titled “Making a Cake,” she describes in harrowing detail how Harriet collapsed, opening a gash on the back of her head. After, Shumaker tends her wounds:

I part your baby fine hair, arrange it out of the way of the healing place, stroke your warm scalp, let touch take over, a genuine laying on of hands, over the odd knob made odder, over the perpetual upstart of your brain, over the secrets told and kept, the things we have not confided but share anyway, you and I, stroke longer and longer, longer than it takes, until you turn to me and smile, beatitude beyond language and I pronounce you gaw-juss and we laugh, ready to take on whatever this day has to give.

She saves perhaps her greatest and final constant to open part six with a chapter titled “Mi Corazon,” her husband Joe. At first glance, they appear to be an unlikely couple: he’s “an engineer, a miner by trade, a businessman, a pilot, a scuba diver”; she’s a poet, a scholar, a nature-lover, a seeker. Of their differences, she writes, “To me, it’s a great puzzle, this universe. When we get something to work, I say, triumphant, ‘It’s magic!’ Joe says, deadpan, ‘It’s physics.’” Differences aside, with Joe as constant and loving support, she’s able to examine, with compassion, the circumstances of her childhood and her parents’ lives.

With Just Breathe Normally, Peggy Shumaker has crafted an unforgettable, transcendent memoir. Full of heartbreaking loss, searing insights, and language both sensual and profound, Shumaker has given us the rarest of gifts: one that not only entertains, but instructs, reminding us that forgiveness isn’t something that randomly happens to us, but is painstakingly achieved with diligence, patience, and love. When Shumaker finally decides to get on a bike again, she and Joe choose the Day of the Dead. She writes, “I look both ways, outside, inside. We push off, wobbly, into the rest of our lives.”  

Peggy Shumaker has published several collections of poems, including, most recently, Underground Rivers, (Red Hen Press, 2002) and Wings Moist from the Other World (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994). Shumaker has served as president of the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. She is professor emerita at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.