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The Water Giver

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Joan Ryan, Simon & Schuster

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The Water Giver

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



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.”


There was no blood. No obvious injury. When I drove up to the scene, Ryan was already strapped into a stretcher, surrounded by police and para¬medics. Three neighborhood boys had raced to our house on their bikes and knocked on our back door. “Ryan fell off his skateboard,” one said breathlessly. “He’s on Lagunitas Road.” Three blocks away.

Barry and I had been about to leave for the meeting at school to plan the annual fund-raising gala.

I shouted upstairs, where Barry was still dressing.

“Ryan fell off his skateboard,” I said. “I’ll go check it out.”

I drove the three blocks to Lagunitas Road, where a fire truck, an ambulance, and a police cruiser were parked near the stop sign where the road meets Willow Avenue. A small crowd of boys and several adults — residents and passersby — had gathered around Ryan. He was on a stretcher on the ground, straining against the belts pulled tight across his chest, thighs, and forehead. He had an immobilizing collar around his neck. He had been stripped to his boxer shorts. He had a scrape by his left eye and another scrape near the crown of his head. He kept trying to wrest himself free of the straps and grew increasingly irritated that he couldn’t.

One of the boys later told me he saw Ryan on his skateboard gaining speed down a long slope on Lagunitas Road. Ryan be¬gan to wobble — perhaps he hit a rock, perhaps the new bearings on his wheels malfunctioned. He lost control, flying forward off the board. His bare head slammed into the road, then hit several more times as he rolled. He came to rest, face down, near the stop sign at Willow Avenue. The boy ran to Ryan and called 911 as soon as he saw Ryan was crying. He had never seen Ryan cry.

The paramedic crouching over Ryan said he had no broken bones, but because he had hit his head, they were taking him to the hospital to be checked.

“Are you all right, sweetie?” I asked, kneeling next to him.

He said the right side of his head was the only place that really hurt.

“He wasn’t wearing a helmet,” the police officer said. He knew Ryan, as all the officers did, not because Ryan got into trouble but because he always stopped to chat and listen to their stories.

“As soon as he’s fixed up, I’m going to kill him,” I joked.

The officer laughed. “If I don’t get to him first.”

My stomach didn’t lurch. My heart didn’t stop. I didn’t feel what I had always heard you felt in the moment that your life changes.

I wasn’t worried, in part because I knew rescue teams in our little town roar to the scene when old Mr. Pitts steps off the curb too hard while walking his Yorkshire terrier. And I am my mother’s daughter. She wasn’t much for kissing away tears when we fell from trees or bobbed up sputtering from a dive into the deep end. “What were you doing there in the first place?” she’d ask. If we hurt ourselves on the ball field, she didn’t move from her seat in the stands. She figured if the injury was bad enough, someone would summon her.

I raised Ryan similarly, in that I knew the odds were heavily in my favor that he would survive, no matter what stupid stuff he did. I was probably, by today’s standards, an underprotective mom. I believed fear was, generally speaking, a useless expenditure of energy. I knew the newspapers were filled with murders and grisly accidents. But I also knew, because I was a reporter, that these aw¬ful things were out of the norm. That’s why they were in the pa¬per. The odds are always in the favor of nothing bad happening.

The paramedics loaded Ryan into the ambulance and handed me his jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers. I told them my husband and I would meet them at Marin General, less than four miles away. I called Barry on my cell to tell him what was happening and that I would be by in about a minute to pick him up.

“I heard sirens,” he said when he climbed into the car.

“His head hurts, so they’re going to get him checked out,” I said.

Fifteen minutes later, at around 5:45 in the afternoon on a sunny Wednesday, Barry and I pulled into the parking lot of Marin General. Ryan had been there only one other time, for another skateboard mishap. He had fallen going down a hill, ripping the skin from his right arm and leg. That time he was wearing a helmet.

I reached into the backseat and gathered up Ryan’s clothes. He would need them for the ride home. But at the last moment, I tossed them back into the car. If he has a concussion, I thought, they might need to keep him overnight. I could always dash out to the car if he was given the okay to leave.

The waiting room was empty. We filled out paperwork and took seats in front of the aquarium. I wondered if I should call the school to say why we were missing the meeting. Barry and I stared at the fish. Then we stared at the TV mounted on the wall in the corner. There was a news story about Google providing the town of Mountain View with free wireless Internet.

From THE WATER GIVER by Joan Ryan. Copyright © 2009 by Joan Ryan. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. www.simonandschuster.com. For more information on Joan Ryan, go to www.joanryanink.com.

Comments [1]

Beautifully written piece.

Dec 5th, 2009 10:42am

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