The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance

The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance

by Joan Ryan

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Both a medical drama and meditation on motherhood, The Water Giver is Joan Ryan's honest account of her doubts and mistakes in raising a learning-disabled son and the story of how his near-fatal accident gave her a second chance as a parent.


Both a medical drama and meditation on motherhood, The Water Giver is Joan Ryan's honest account of her doubts and mistakes in raising a learning-disabled son and the story of how his near-fatal accident gave her a second chance as a parent.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
How does one raise children to be the best they can be, instead of the best of who you want them to be? Former San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ryan (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) wrestled with this question for most of her adopted son Ryan's life, never quite feeling as if her mothering instincts fit the boy she loved. His early childhood diagnosis with sensory integration dysfunction gave her analytical side a roadmap of therapies and teaching tools, but the heartbreak of watching him struggle endlessly in school and at home left her emotionally exhausted and unsure of herself. Then their lives changed: after falling from his skateboard just blocks from their home at age TK, her son suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to walk or talk, requiring multiple complex surgeries and months of rehabilitation. Her story of supporting him through this experience, with expert medical teams and tremendous aid from family and friends, is a testament both to her stamina and to his strength. Given the perspective that sometimes only a crisis can bring, Ryan learns to forgive herself for the smaller struggles of her son's earlier years, to take each day's challenges as they come and to trust herself to be the only mother that he needs. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Ryan (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, 1995, etc.) recounts the unexpected positive consequences of her son's traumatic brain injury. Until her adopted son was 16, parenthood had never flowed naturally for the author, and she viewed herself as an incompetent mother to a child with significant developmental challenges. First diagnosed as a toddler, her son had an underdeveloped central nervous system that caused him to meet the demands of daily life with irrationality and inflexibility. A kindhearted and complex child, he couldn't tell time or recount a story in chronological order by middle school, but he had insights into God by the age of four. Ever the journalist, Ryan approached him as she would an assignment, with notes and research instead of acceptance and understanding. But when a skateboard accident caused a near-fatal skull fracture with bleeding and swelling in his brain, Ryan was forced to meet acceptance head-on. When her son awoke from his coma, Ryan experienced the emotions of a mother at the birth of her child as she couldn't before, giving herself over for the first time, wholly and completely, to her son. During the nearly 100 days of his hospitalized recovery process, Ryan chronicles the literal rebirth of her son, as he relearned to speak (his first word was "Mom"), to stand and to walk. Reborn herself, Ryan became a new mother, watching her child reveal himself to her, consumed by the palpable love of a parent and becoming the nurturing mother her son had always needed. While exposing the exhaustive and unpredictable nature of brain injuries, Ryan illustrates the ways in which catastrophic eventsproduce acceptance, revealing gifts amid destruction and the healing energy of thought and prayer. Ryan tells this touching story of survival, love and absolution as only a mother could, while sparing none of the journalistic details of a child in trauma and a family in grief. Agent: Betsy Lerner/Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
From the Publisher
"We have to admire Ryan for tackling these topics. It is one thing to

live through the experiences as they occur; it is quite another to

re-create them honestly and effectively. And though the story Ryan

tells is unique...the themes of love, grace and redemption that run

through her discussion are ideas with which we can all relate."

—Christina Eng, The San Francisco Chronicle

"Given the perspective that sometimes only a crisis can bring, Ryan learns to forgive herself for the smaller struggles of her son's earlier years, to take each day's challenges as they come and to trust herself to be the only mother that he needs."

Publishers Weekly

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Simon & Schuster
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I had not cried in his room. I believed he could hear me, or at least sense what I was feeling. So I chattered at him as if we were around our kitchen table. I told him we would be there when he woke up. That he should rest as long as he needed to heal. That he would be fine.

I believed it, despite everything that had happened. Ryan would be fine because children don’t die and because he was Ryan. I looked at him on the bed in the intensive care unit and saw a strong, broad-shouldered, tanned sixteen-year-old who seemed to be sleeping. My eyes looked past the tube clamped to his mouth to keep him breathing, the hard plastic collar around his neck, the gauze turban, the wires snaking from his arms, chest, and skull into various beeping, blinking machines.

I stood at his bedside and held his hand and kissed his smooth skin. His fingernails still had grease under them from working at Lucky Garage. I wouldn’t let the nurses clean them.

“You can’t do this,” I whispered in my son’s ear. I was crying. “I can handle anything. But I can’t handle losing you, Ryan. I can’t survive that.”

© 2009 JOAN RYAN


The bottom shelf of the bookcase in my home office is lined with black three-ring binders and manila folders marked “Ryan.” They are filled with year-by-year educational plans, teacher conference notes, school transcripts, specialists’ assessments, neuropsychiatrists’ reports, photocopied articles about special-ed laws, positive discipline, learning disabilities, behavior modification techniques, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

They seem to chronicle a childhood. In truth they chronicle a motherhood.

The accumulation of information probably never helped Ryan very much. Oh, to some degree I’m sure it did. Mostly, though, the heaping piles of paper did for me what heaping piles of food do for others: they blunted my anxiety.

Ryan confounded me almost from birth. He was not the cooing cherub of my long-held imaginings, the come-to-life baby-doll I could dress up in soft sweaters and carry in the crook of my arm as I tested the temperature of his bottled milk on my wrist. Sometimes he was exactly that. Maybe often he was. The brain, I know, cannot be trusted with the past. It skips pages, whole chapters. It rewrites.

When I look back over Ryan’s childhood, many of the good times are missing. What I have are fragments of the past, broken pieces that swirl behind my eyes late at night. I know even as I write this I am putting forth a picture that is incomplete and skewed.

In my memories, my baby is colicky and irritable. His mouth is open and his tongue recoiled and vibrating. I am in a T-shirt and sweats carrying him through the dark rooms of our house, bouncing him and singing and walking until finally I am crying, too, from exhaustion and the deflating realization that I have no clue how to comfort my own child.

In my memories, I have such poor mothering instincts that I watch the drunken wife of a second cousin teeter around a backyard barbecue with my two-month-old in her arms until my aunt shoots me a look, and when I do nothing, grabs the baby back. In my memories, four-year-old Ryan wanders from the house when I’m in the shower, and when I can’t find him in the yard or on the sidewalk, I call the police and we find him crying at a neighbor’s house. I don’t immediately scoop him into my arms. I am afraid—because he is weird about being touched when he’s upset—that he’ll reject me in front of everybody. The neighbor lady, surely appalled, finally lurches forward and wraps her arms around him.

“I think this calls for hugs!” she says.

In my memories, when Ryan is nine, we are playing a pickup game of softball with my parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins at a family reunion in New Jersey. Ryan hits a line drive to me in left field. He has never hit a ball as hard or as far. I catch it, much to the disbelief of the other adults. Wouldn’t any other mother, knowing how important it is for this child to succeed in something, let the ball drop? It never occurs to me. Ryan runs off the field, angry and crying. Embarrassed, I run after him, past the disapproving faces in the row of lawn chairs by the backstop.

In my memories, Ryan is writhing and screaming from some minor provocation. As a toddler, he went nuts about shirt tags rubbing against his neck and about socks that weren’t soft enough, ripping off clothes as if they were burning his skin. He screamed in the car when the sun made a direct hit on his eyes. When he was in preschool, I would wait by the phone for the teacher to tell me I had to come get him, that he had hit another child or exploded in another tantrum.

Sometimes I found myself so infuriated with Ryan—when he refused to stop banging his fork on his plate, or ripped toys from another child’s hands, or shattered a neighbor’s patio light by hitting golf balls from our yard into his, or butchered the bottoms of the kitchen cabinets yet again by skateboarding in the house—that I would come undone. It was as if his crackly irritability ricocheted around the room long after he left, so even in his absence it was often impossible to regroup. I screamed, usually at him, but sometimes into the air, a primal howl of exhaustion, frustration, fury. He alone had the ability to rip away my competent, she-hasit-figured-out outer self and expose the unhinged creature within, flailing to regain order and control.

Some of what Ryan and I did could seem funny in retrospect. When I told the stories, I would laugh, casting him as a Dennis-the-Menace character and me as the Looney-Tunes mom. But in the moment, as I marched him to the car after another meltdown at another birthday party, or when I lay awake at night, unable to let go of the day’s events, I would feel angry at myself and this little boy for not being more than we were.

My husband, Barry, let much of Ryan’s behavior slide off his back. He recognized our son’s challenges and supported my efforts to find the right diagnoses and professional support. But he found ways to delight in Ryan. He loved Ryan’s sense of humor, his affection for animals, his sweet way with babies and old people, his automatic but genuine “I love you” with every greeting and parting.

Barry looked at Ryan and saw what was wonderful about him. I looked at him and saw what needed fixing.

I attacked the puzzle of my son the way I attacked my stories as a journalist: by reading and studying, contacting experts, and compiling data. I went into full analytic mode. I seemed to believe that I could, with enough research and hard work, construct the child I wanted him to be. I became, over the years, less his loving mother and more his relentless reformer.

I was not the mother I imagined I would be. I was not the mother my son needed.

Then one horrible summer afternoon, I got a second chance.

© 2009 JOAN RYAN

Meet the Author

Joan Ryan is an award-winning journalist and author. She was one of the first female sports columnists in the country, and has covered every major sporting event, from the Super Bowl to the Olympics and championship fights. Her work has earned her thirteen Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, the National Headliner Award and the Women's Sports Foundation's Journalism Award by the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women. Her book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters was named one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time by Sports Illustrated (the only one to be authored by a woman), and one of the Top 50 Sports Books of All Time by the Guardian. Joan now works as a media consultant to the San Francisco Giants.

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