An admiring crowd of readers of Joan Ryan's former SF Chronicle column turned out on September 16, 2009, to hear her discuss her new book, The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, Her Son, and Their Second Chance. Both a medical drama and a meditation on motherhood, The Water Giver is Joan's account of her son's near fatal skateboarding accident. When first called to the hospital, Joan Ryan thinks it means only a few stitches and a wasted afternoon. Instead she spends months rather than hours with her son in the hospital and in rehab, watching him fight to survive a traumatic brain injury. Joan retraces the tumultuous, complicated relationship that delivers mother and son to this moment when, through his brush with death and his painful rehabilitation, they are challenged to redefine who they are and what they mean to each other.Never easy to parent, her son had spent most of his sixteen years lurching from one setback to the next, struggling to overcome learning disabilities and ADHD. Joan's grim determination to solve the puzzle of his odd and often defiant behavior left her confounded and exasperated. She became so controlling and judgmental, so focused on trying to fix him, that she became more his relentless reformer than his loving mother.When her son wakes from his coma, Joan gets a second chance at motherhood. She rejoices at his first word, his first step, his first spoon of food, his first attempt to write. She gets to be his mother all over again and for the first time recognizes what an amazing, heroic young man he is. "The Water Giver" is the universal story of a mother coming to terms with her limitations and learning that the best way to help her child is simply to love him.
A funny and entertaining speaker, Joan somehow got the audience to laugh at this harrowing tale of medical crisis. She and her husband, broadcaster Barry Tompkins, are warm, engaging people who greeted people they knew in the audience with hugs and big smiles. Among the recipients of these warm embraces were Stanford women's basketball coaches Tara Vanderveer (a co-author with Joan on a previous book) and Amy Tucker, and Stanford tennis coaching legend Dick Gould.
During her talk, Joan reported that her son, Ryan, had just completed his first three days at a university on the East Coast. She joked that she had originally planned to have an apartment nearby his school but then decided against, noting that Ryan had spent a summer pre-college semester at the university and immediately developed a great support system by himself.
A trailblazing female sportswriter, Joan Ryan's writing is easy to read yet the story is gripping on many levels as the medical crisis and its aftermath wax and wane. A wonderful true-life tale of a family's love during unthinkable stress.