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
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
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
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.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
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 mo see more