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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416584001
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 09/08/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Water Giver includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joan Ryan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book


Joan Ryan expected motherhood to be different. She expected to raise her child just as she’d been raised. However, her son Ryan’s severe tantrums at home and trouble learning at school make her exceedingly frustrated by her inability to help him. Then, a severe accident and unlikely recovery brings mother and son closer than they’ve ever been. In a memoir about loving your child for who they are, not for whom you imagined them to be, Joan tells the story of the frightening path life took so that she could be the mother her son needed. With loyal friends and family, and the author’s deeply honest analysis of the events and most importantly herself, The Water Giver is a testament to love, acceptance and motherhood.


1. When Ryan calls Joan “the water giver,” she says: “I let the words wash over me. They felt like absolution” (p. 148). How is this scene a symbol of the simplicity she’d been searching for between mother and son? Contrast this to the “heaping piles of paper,” which chronicle Ryan’s behavioral troubles, and as the Joan asserts, blunted her anxiety (p. 5).

2. From Dr. Doom and Clemania to Lorna, Scott and Eastham, talk about the major characters in the book. What insight did they provide for Joan about Ryan, and about herself? What do we learn about Joan from her depiction of her close friends and family?

3. How does Joan approach her family’s story and her own story of motherhood? What is the overall tone of the memoir? How does that affect your reading of the story?

4. Talk about Ryan’s epilogue. How did it feel to read Ryan’s first person account? Did that have any effect on the story? Did it feel celebratory to see how far he’d come?

5. The hospitals and treatment centers are central to the book’s sense of place. How the hospital scenes impact your reading experience? Whose trauma did it make more visceral, Ryan’s or Joan and Barry’s?

6. Joan’s identity is heavily oriented around her profession as a reporter and a journalist. Talk about the moments when she uses her reporter’s sense to cope with the changes in her family. What about her profession seemed to help prepare her for the challenges her family faced?

8. How does Joan’s profession affect the tone of the book? The structure?

9. Although clearly accepted and loved as a member the family, in what ways do you think the book would have been different if Ryan had been Joan’s biological child? Would that have increased her anxiety about the history of depression in her family? Do you think she would have been more critical of her mothering skills?

10. Compare and contrast Joan’s brother Bobby’s story to Ryan’s. Was she right to fear the similarities of Ryan and Bobby’s experiences? Were her fears largely superfluous?

11. The author seamlessly weaves her past personal narrative into her present circumstances. What did you think about the narrative shifts? How did they enhance your reading experience? Did knowing about Joan’s past help you better understand her relationship to her son?

12. Acceptance, transformation, and letting go of control are important themes in the memoir. Discuss how characters deal with each differently. Can you recall similar struggles of acceptance and transformation in your own experience?

13. Has the novel changed or impacted your perception of what “mothering” means? If so how?

14. The act of loving is an important theme in this novel. By the end of the book, how has the author learned to love differently?


1. Start a blog. Chronicle your own transformative experience using

2. Want Joan Ryan to attend a book discussion? Log on to her website at


Was writing this story essentially reliving the past? Was this a helpful exercise for you? For your family? Are there parts about the process you wish you could change?

Writing the book didn’t feel like reliving the past as much as it did re-examining it. We all have haunting moments tucked away somewhere secret. Some incidents that I felt a lot of shameabout – not hugging Ryan when he wandered over to a neighbor’s house, catching his fly ball at the family reunion – became less shameful once I confessed them on the page. The book allowed me to look at them objectively, let them go, and forgive myself.
Writing a memoir is always problematic for both the writer and the people the writer includes in the book. My husband read almost every draft and signed off on everything. I also asked my brothers and sisters to read the parts about them and my parents. I would have tossed out anything they found objectionable or inaccurate, but they were fine with what they read. In fact, one of my brothers said he learned a lot from the book, bits of family history that he had never known – such as the circumstances of our grandfather’s suicide.

You write, “The brain, I know, cannot be trusted with the past. It skips pages, whole chapters. It rewrites.” You admit that you are “putting forth a picture that is incomplete and skewed.” Why was this proclamation so important for readers to have in the beginning?

I wanted to be clear that the account of my motherhood and my son’s childhood was through my eyes only. It was my truth, not my husband’s or Ryan’s. I recognized that, during Ryan’s childhood, I dwelled way too much on my failings and Ryan’s deficits. I wanted the reader to know I was not a completely reliable narrator, that I was not presenting the most balanced account of those years. But understanding my perception of those years is crucial to understanding the impact Ryan’s accident had on me. The reader can’t understand how fundamentally I changed as a mother without first knowing that my motherhood up until that point was about fixing flaws – in both me and my son – instead of celebrating strengths.

You’re extremely hard on yourself, which, based on the text, could be a result of your experiences breaking into sports as female journalist. Is it safe to say that those same “incomplete and skewed” memories indicate a mother who wasn’t as bad as you’d once believed?

My own depression and unrealistic expectations colored my perception. Was I as incompetent a mother as I thought I was? My husband doesn’t think so and Ryan doesn’t think so, which means perhaps my assessment isn’t accurate.. All of us look back at the past through our own filters. My experience as a sports columnist was one of those filters. I had very high expectations of myself. I truly thought I could accomplish anything with enough hard work and research and courage. Then Ryan was born – and I simply was out of my league. All those insecurities from childhood that I thought I had mastered flooded back and I had no compassion for my own ineptness. I just worked harder and beat myself up even more.

Did you find a contradiction in believing “in a magic that would make Ryan whole,” yet no longer having faith in a God-like figure (p.106)?

Absolutely it was a contradiction. It made no sense. But there it was. I have grappled with faith for much of my life – trying to define it, trying to reconcile it with science and logic. But in that moment when my son was holding on to life, I knew my belief in his recovery had to be stronger than his injury. Is that prayer? Is it energy? I still don’t know. I just know I felt something beyond technology and medical expertise was helping my son. Perhaps this is a good definition of denial. Perhaps when reality is too much to bear our brains turn to magic and faith because they require no evidence. We can just believe and feel soothed.

Was including a chapter by Ryan always part of the plan? How did that come about? Did you want to do that for your readers—to satiate their need for Ryan’s recovery? Or was it simply important to the family?

I always planned to include an afterword by Ryan. I kept a blog during Ryan’s hospitalization so friends and family could keep abreast of his condition every day. Every night when Barry and I returned from the hospital, I would write a new entry then check all the comments people had left for us that day. This was always one of my favorite parts of the day. I felt so loved and supported knowing how many people were thinking of us and sending good thoughts to Ryan. When Ryan returned home and I stopped writing the blog, I asked Ryan to write the final entry. He thanked everyone and said he was doing great and still working hard at his recovery. People told me afterward how powerful it was to hear from Ryan himself. I figured readers of the book might respond similarly. Also, I know some readers might be concerned that I was invading Ryan’s privacy or that he might not approve of the book. His afterword makes clear that he endorsed the project.

Since hindsight is 20/20, how much of the insight throughout the book was revelatory during the writing process and how much of it were things that you remembered experiencing?

I remember sitting in the waiting rooms of Marin General and UCSF and observing my own behavior with a sense of admiration. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back. It was a strange sensation to be kind of outside of yourself and thinking, “Wow, look at you. You’re so serene, so full of hope, so willing to give yourself over to the situation rather than trying to control it.’’ I didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing this shift in perspective until I started writing. I think the writing process helped me to articulate how I had changed and why. Writing about the experience allowed me to chart, in some ways, where I came from and how I finally reached the place I always hoped to reach. I finally had become the kind of mother I envisioned I would be and was able to love my son without reservation or judgment.

You describe the doctor’s description of Ryan’s recovery as “the tumble of it,” “the changeability of it,” risibly juxtaposing that with “you don’t need to go to a monastery in Tibet to learn about living in the moment. Just spend a month in an ICU” (p. 130). These statements hint at your pragmatism, but also that you link personal growth to unexpected tragedies. Is this something you’ve always believed?

I’ve always known that awful things deepen your understanding of others and yourself. Growing up with a brother with all kinds of psychological and physical problems shaped me and my brothers and sisters. We are so different from one another but one thing we have in common is compassion. We are all champions of the underdog. We know what it’s like to be picked on and dismissed; we watched our brother suffer through it every day. I am not a proponent of the adage that suffering builds character – I’d rather suffer less and build character in other ways, thank you – but there often are gifts that come out of tragedies. And the best gift, as I know, is that you learn something that makes you a more loving human being.

You mention four different instances of unexpected suicides. Were you aware of the prevalence of these types of stories in the narrative? In your personal narrative?

I hadn’t realized, frankly, there are four suicides in the book. I have often thought about the suicides in my own family – my grandfather and uncle. I have wondered if there is a genetic component. Is my father at risk? Am I? When our neighbor, the mother with four children, jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, I tried to imagine the world inside her head. What is the path from cupcakes on Teacher Appreciation Day to leaping to one’s death? It scares me to think that someone who seems so normal could, under certain circumstances, sink into such darkness. I think this is a topic I have not finished exploring.

Were you, or your immediate circle of friends and family, surprised at the development of any of the major themes? Were you sure of anything besides the subject matter while writing?

I knew when I began the book that the major theme was motherhood. I knew it was about learning to raise, and celebrate, the child you have, not the child you thought you would have. What I didn’t know, almost until the end of the book, was that this didn’t go far enough. The most important lesson of parenthood is to recognize that your child is exactly the person he is supposed to be. And that, if you’re lucky, he just might be the teacher who shapes you into the person you are supposed to be.

Although you’ve had time to imbibe the information, how daunting was the medical terminology initially? Was it difficult to process while you were experiencing the trauma? How about during the writing process?

While Ryan was in the hospital, I stayed away from the internet and other resources. I had no desire to analyze everything that was going on. That part of my brain seemed to turn off on its own. I let the doctors do their jobs (at least for the most part; I did ask a lot of questions, of course). When I began to write the book, I went into full reporter mode. I ordered all of Ryan’s hospital records and interviewed all of Ryan’s primary doctors. The terminology really wasn’t daunting because, as a journalist, I was always wading into unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar language. I also knew I would have all the doctors read the manuscript to make sure I had gotten all the procedures and medications correct.

Referring to Ryan you write, “It seemed almost unbelievable that I had forgotten how intensely I loved him” (p. 95). Was this difficult to admit? Were there parts of this story that were difficult for you to write about?

This was the most difficult revelation. I truly didn’t realize how long it had been since I gave myself over completely to loving Ryan. I think it was part of my nature to hold something back in every relationship, to not let myself become too vulnerable. Where does that come from? I don’t know. But self-sufficiency and independence had always been so integral to my self-image. I never recognized, until I wrote the book and did the excruciating work of examining myself, that they applied to my relationship with my son.

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