The Second Chance 

Joan Ryan found a hidden gift in her son's near-fatal accident.

Told that her sixteen-year-old son had just fallen off a skateboard and hit his head, Joan Ryan rushed to the scene: "There was no blood. No obvious injury." Agitated, the teen — who went by his middle name, Ryan, which is also his mother's surname — spoke to her and strained against the straps that affixed him to a stretcher. He'd sustained no broken bones, but a paramedic explained that any head injury mandated a visit to nearby Marin General Hospital just to be checked. Because the basically good-humored but sometimes volatile 215-pound six-footer with ADHD had transgressed his parents' rules by skateboarding without a helmet, Ryan joked with the paramedics about how "as soon as he's fixed up, I'm going to kill him."

Hours later, he was in a coma. Ryan and her husband stared blankly at the hospital chaplain.

"I began to cry. Okay, I get it. My son might die," Ryan writes in The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance, the harrowing but skin-tinglingly inspiring new book about how "for ninety-four days in 2006, my life hurtled backward, then slowly forward again." Having sustained a traumatic brain injury that at first thoroughly disabled him, the youth made a remarkable recovery, albeit fraught with terrifying setbacks: "Brain injuries are the wounds that keep on wounding," Ryan writes. Yet the author, best known as an award-winning San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter, now calls those long months "a do-over" because "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," she says. "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 who he should be."

She and her sportscaster husband, Barry Tompkins, adopted Ryan at birth. Although she adored him, she struggled with parenting a tantrum-prone child.

"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," says Ryan, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Friday, November 13. Raising her son the first time, "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."

To other parents facing similar ordeals, she asserts: "Don't believe the doctors who say your child will never — pick one — walk, hold a job, live independently, go to college, etc. They don't know. They can't know. Nod your head politely and ignore them." 7 p.m., free.


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