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A Conversation with Joan Ryan

Simon & Schuster

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A Conversation with Joan Ryan
Joan Ryan. Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice from The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance.

Q: Your new book, The Water Giver, is a memoir centered on the consequences of your son Ryan’s head injury. What happened?

Ryan rebuilt, and occasionally built, skateboards. He had just put new bearings on one of boards and wanted to try them out. He had loaned his helmet to a friend and didn’t want to take the time to retrieve it. So he took the board down a fairly gentle hill about 2 blocks from our home. According to a few witnesses, he began to wobble and then fell, hitting head first. He rolled down the hill, hitting his head several more times.

Q: At first it didn’t seem that Ryan’s injury was all that serious — he was conscious when they loaded him onto the ambulance — but things quickly went bad. What happened to Ryan’s brain?

What at first seemed like just a knock on the head, turned quickly into a full-blown trauma. In the ambulance, he became extremely agitated, a sign of a traumatic brain injury. A CT scan showed a bleed in his brain, so neurosurgeon did emergency surgery that night to stop the bleed. But Ryan’s brain swelled from the impact of the fall, just a bruise swells. The top of his skull was removed to give the brain room to swell, like yeast rising from a pan. At one point his brain began to settle on his brain stem and he nearly died. Eventually, the swelling was controlled and Ryan was awakened from his coma.

Q: What is the likelihood that Ryan’s injury would not have been so serious had he been wearing a helmet?

Doctors think he might have had a concussion but not a serious brain injury.

Q: The Water Giver provides a kind of journal of Ryan’s remarkable — if at times harrowing — path to recovery, with you, your husband Barry, and many loving friends at his side. But the most touching part of the story might be what you'd iscovered about yourself during this ordeal. What do you mean when you write, “For ninety-four days in 2006, my life hurtled backward, then slowly forward again. I got a second chance. A do-over”?

I received the gift – at however high a price – of getting to raise Ryan all over again. It was as if he went through all the stages of childhood during the course of those three months: learning to talk, to eat, to walk, to think, to use a toilet. And this time I was a different kind of mother. I finally could accept and truly admire Ryan for who he is, not who I imagined he should be. Instead of always focusing on what I thought needed “fixing,’’ I celebrated every small step forward. In other words, I finally was appreciated what Ryan COULD do rather than what he couldn’t.

Q: Would you say that Ryan was a difficult child to raise?

Very. He had learning disabilities and something called sensory integration dysfunction. He was overly sensitive to certain fabrics, certain smells, sun hitting his eyes. He was easily frustrated and threw the most spectacular tantrums. I can’t tell you how many birthday parties we had to leave, with me apologizing to the hosts on our way out. Normal discipline didn’t work with Ryan. I kept looking, without much luck, for answers, for a way to make this kid behave and focus and, frankly, “be normal.’’

Q: You were an accomplished journalist — a trailblazer as one of the country’s first female sportswriter. After proving yourself so capable, why did you find motherhood so difficult?

Because motherhood isn’t something I could simply will myself to do well. It’s not something you can learn from research or even from watching other people do it – which is how I became a decent sports columnist. Motherhood is so much about giving yourself over to the relationship, trusting your instincts, accepting your child for who he is. And accepting yourself for who YOU are. I was trying to do motherhood as if it were a paint-by-number project, and if I was really diligent and worked really hard, I’d end up with the picture I wanted.

Q: How was your husband Barry’s approach to child-rearing different from your own?

Thank god for Barry. He always saw what was great about Ryan – his huge heart, his sense of humor, his quirky interests in antiques and vintage cars. He let Ryan’s tantrums and horrible behavior slide off his back. And Barry is naturally very affectionate, unlike me, so he and Ryan were always cuddling and I was kind of the third wheel sometimes.

Q: Ryan was adopted. What were the circumstances of his birth?

It was an open adoption, meaning the birth parents chose us from a stack of letters from prospective parents. We were at the hospital when Ryan was born, but Barry and I really weren’t sure the birth mother would go through with the adoption. She is an only child who in the year before Ryan was born lost both her parents very suddenly. How would she give up her only flesh and blood? The most courageous act I have ever witnessed was, after helping me dress a 36-hour-old Ryan into the tiny yellow outfit I had packed in my suitcase, Ryan’s birth mother handed me her baby and told me she was happy he would have Barry and me as his parents. I still cry when I think about it.

Q: One thing that seems to sustain you throughout this trial—and also provides some much need levity to the narrative — is Ryan’s quirky sense of humor. What’s special about his outlook on life?

Ryan is like the world’s guest. We have traveled a lot with him, and he is at home in every culture, with every type of person. I’ve never seen anyone as color-blind and as nonjudgmental as he is. He is insatiably curious, and he is always asking workers how they do what they do, or why they do it this certain way. He love antiques mostly for their stories. He loves to hear the history of an object, how it was used and by whom. One of his most wonderful traits is his ability to laugh at himself. He knows he has a bad memory, for example, so he jokes that he is the best person to share a secret with because he’ll never remember it.

Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. www.simonandschuster.com. For more information on Joan Ryan, go to www.joanryanink.com.

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