Deep Waters tells the true story of a couple challenged when the author’s otherwise healthy husband is slammed by a rare type of stroke. His radical approach to recovery clashes with her instinct to keep him safe at home and sets them on a collision course as he insists on ambitious sailing expeditions with Beth and their young son in Alaska’s magnificent yet unforgiving waters. Pacific Northwest novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax interviewed marine biologist and author Beth Ann Mathews about her debut memoir.
ARL: Your memoir opens with a frightening medical incident which becomes an even larger life-or-death medical mystery. When you were writing about what happened to your husband, Jim, were you just aiming to tell a personal story about love and determination, or did you see yourself sharing useful medical information that could help others? I ask because few memoirs manage to be both emotionally powerful while also being exceedingly practical. I was only a few chapters into your book when I started imagining all the people who could benefit from its insights, not only about stroke, but about navigating a medical crisis in general.
BAM: Initially, I was driven to tell Jim’s personal story of determination because I’d witnessed how hard he’d fought to walk, swallow without choking, swim, and ride a bike again. I didn’t think of writing about the difficulties of juggling roles of medical advocate, wife, mother, and bread-winner.
In Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, two of my favorite memoirs, each author tells their story of growing up in a dysfunctional family with their mother as important, but not the main, character. Their first-hand perspectives, insights, and internal struggles are what grabbed and held me tight.
To write Deep Waters, I studied Jim’s hospital records and read about lateral medullary strokes. I also learned a lot from his doctors and reading Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself to Jim while he was in the hospital. But it wasn’t until I had a full draft that I realized scenes scattered throughout the book might help others respond to a family crisis or work through difficult phases in the aftermath of a medical crisis.
ARL: You and Jim are both adventurers and scientists who have done field work in Alaska and on research vessels and thrived in all kinds of remote, physically arduous situations. But it wasn’t a thrilling outdoor adventure that endangered Jim’s health at the book’s start. It was something horribly, almost surreally, everyday. When this emergency struck (or later, when you were writing the memoir), did you think about how we appraise risk as we move through life, so often getting the risk analysis wrong?
BAM: Yes. The irony of a life-time adventurer like Jim getting injured while doing a mundane chore is something we reflect on. Jim and I first got to know each other while teaching a course on the ecology of humpback whales for fourteen college students through the School for Field Studies. We camped with our students on an island for two weeks and spent another two weeks at sea sailing on and studying whales from a tall ship. The responsibilities we carried were in line with those of parents on an ambitious expedition.
I’d never met someone who thinks as much about risk and safety as Jim. One reason he’s that way is that he survived several close calls as a young man. In college, he and a friend almost died during a cross-glacier ski trip in Alaska. When a blizzard hit, their tent collapsed, forcing them to burrow into a vertical face of the snowpack. They spent a week on the edge of hypothermia and starvation in their ice cave. His youthful planning skills were lacking then, and it was his ingenuity and their stamina that saved them. But that brush with death, and a few others, taught him to plan for the unexpected. A lot of older adventurers are here because they learned from close calls.
Over the years, we’ve had close calls while boating and long-distance cruising that made me question if risks we were taking were higher compared to living on land—particularly with our young son on board. We then learned that the probability of dying while at sea on a sailboat was about three times less than dying in a car accident, based on the routes we’d recently been driving to and from our son’s school five days a week. On our boat, we’re constantly re-evaluating safety protocols and equipment, which should lower that risk even further.
Before Jim’s stroke, I would never have guessed he’d get seriously hurt at home. I would have thought it would be running a mountain trail, scuba diving, working at the top of our fifty-foot mast, or some other boating accident.
ARL: Many memoirs are about change brought about by crisis. In Deep Waters, we have two “characters”—you and your husband—who both experienced physical or emotional challenges and are forced to adapt. Who do you think ended up changing more during the time span covered in the book?
BAM: Jim’s explorer tendency expressed itself soon after he learned to walk. In high school he led his sisters on day-long hikes into the Blue Ridge mountains and camped by himself in a rural area—with his seven geese.
After the stroke, Jim went from being a field scientist leading a research team in Glacier Bay, to someone focused on walking again. He stared at death down a narrow tunnel and got a second, and a third chance, and he knew what he wanted. He wanted to be physically whole and to spend quality time with his family sailing. Although he set aside his professional aspirations, his drive to explore new frontiers and use his problem-solving skills out on the ocean was similar after the stroke, if not amplified.
I grew up in the Midwest. My parents raised seven children in the same house we moved to when I was three, and remained there until they passed away some fifty years later. Setting down roots and raising a family in one place, having a secure, fulfilling job, was a vision I carried into adulthood.
No question, we were both altered by the stroke, with the physical challenges huge for Jim. But the situation pushed me in some ways to change more fundamentally. I left a rewarding career as a marine biologist early and let go of my desire for a stable home and financial security in exchange for an adventure-filled sailing expedition with my family. Ultimately, my husband’s stroke led me to closer relationships with my husband and son and to a new career as a writer.
ARL: Let’s talk about sex. I’m thinking of one tasteful episode in which you and Jim decide it’s important to find a way to have sex, for recovery purposes and with a doctor’s permission, well before he is discharged from his long-term hospital stay. This is definitely not something medical professionals talk about often! Did you have to get past your own inner censor to write about this?
BAM: I did. Although there is no explicit sex in my book, intimacy was and is an important part of our relationship and Jim’s recovery. Stroke survivors commonly have to retrain their nervous system to participate just as they might need to re-learn how to walk or write. When Jim brought up his desire to make love, I was shocked. I assumed that would risk another stroke. At Jim’s urging we consulted his doctor.
This situation is one of several examples in which my fear of the unknown initially dictated my behavior and held me back. Once I understood that the risk in our case—but not all cases—was nil and the possible benefits for our future high, I changed my stance.
I put off writing that scene until one day it poured out of me. It was a tender and discreet moment, and I was afraid I couldn’t do it justice. I first read it for the three women in my smaller critique group, and they helped me fine-tune the draft. After another revision, I read it in my larger, mixed-gender class. It was well received, and no one complained it was too explicit.
ARL: Your son, age nine when this memoir opens, is also an important character in the book, and his relationship with his father is beautifully portrayed. People who survive brushes with disease, marital discord, and other stressful events often worry how it will affect their children. Do you have anything either cautionary or optimistic to say about this, in terms of lessons learned or growth observed?
BAM: Glen is an only child, and we’re a very close family. I was relieved when he was granted permission to accompany me on the medevac jet that whisked Jim from Juneau to Seattle. Later, I needed to decide whether to keep him with us during his father’s recovery. I worried seeing his healthy, rigorous father incapacitated might be too much for him to handle.
From the first moments of his father’s stroke, Glen insisted he wanted to be with us. Even so, it was my job to decide if it was appropriate for him to witness his father recovering from the trauma. Could it be too much for you a young person to handle? Several observations swayed me.
Glen’s presence in the hospital cheered up his father. On more than one occasion, he pulled Jim out of a bleak hole after I had not been able to. Having our son with me, staying in the hotel and eating meals together, and moments when he made me laugh, helped me stay sane and stronger as Jim’s medical advocate. I viewed our family as a sort of three-legged stool with Jim’s motivation to work hard at recovering as the most crucial component. For Glen, there were clear long-term benefits of having a healthy father in his life. To promote the best outcome, I concluded that risking some emotional strain to our young son was worth increasing the chances that his father would recover as fully possible.
ARL: You and Jim get so much support from community during this health crisis and in the recovery period that follows. We live in a time of loneliness and disconnection, even more so since the pandemic started. Most of us can’t count on that kind of support, but speaking for myself, I haven’t worked hard enough to earn it, either. Can you share with us the ways in which you’ve prioritized maintaining social networks or anything you learned about the importance of community during this crisis?
BAM: Your question brings up another reason I was compelled to write Deep Waters. I attribute much of my husband’s nearly full recovery to friends, family, medical professionals, and acquaintances jumping in to support us with pivotal advice, direct help, and emotional support—from the first heart-pounding hours in Juneau’s hospital, to the weeks of recovery and setbacks in Seattle and back home.
We have remained in contact with several people who supported us through that rough year, but I wish I could have thanked each and every person along that winding, bumpy road through and beyond that life-altering year. Deep Waters is in fact a love letter to all the people who helped us, including strangers, who have no idea how much their involvement and kindness shored us up along the way.
ARL: Sailing and the outdoors are also important in this memoir. Were there times, especially when Jim was possibly overestimating his physical capabilities, that you resented his pressure to return to adventuring so soon? Or did your own soul need to embrace adventure and wilderness as well?
BAM: After coming so close to losing Jim, my protective instinct was in high gear—perhaps excessive. Being out on our boat with my husband and son was where I was often happiest and most relaxed. We connected in that magical way others experience while camping or on vacation. Our world shrank to the three of us—no internet. Simple pleasures of fishing, cooking for each other, running the boat, observing wildlife, and also boat maintenance chores like changing the engine oil or hand washing some laundry, filled our days. I loved being immersed in Southeast Alaska’s rich marine wilderness surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, encountering sea birds and whales, seals and sea lions.
But then, while Jim was still having problems with balance, jittery vision, and choking he proposed an ambitious three-week expedition with our son and two friends. What bothered me about his proposal was that I could not be on board for the whole trip. I’d have to come and go due to my work. The expedition was not in a placid lake, but rather in the ocean, where conditions can flip from lake-calm to gale-force winds and steep seas in a few hours. I worried something might happen to him at sea. He’s a safety conscious person, but the ocean has claimed many competent sailors. In Scotland, the sea is referred to as a widow maker.
The term resent, however doesn’t quite say it all. While I resented him pushing for activities that took him far from medical help, and put him at risk in other ways, I held that emotion side-by-side with awe and gratitude for his determination to recover and live fully. We’d read articles on brain plasticity and how recoveries from brain trauma can be improved by pushing your body to do things that are hard which might prime your nervous system to rewire. Intellectually, I understood and believed that advice, but emotionally I wrestled with an uncontainable fear of losing him.
ARL: I learned so much reading this book. I wonder what you imagine the key takeaway might be for readers?
BAM: At its heart, Deep Waters is about the importance of building relationship resilience through trusting and loving each other, reinforcing your bonds by making time for adventures, new experiences, and intimacy, and by not letting work eclipse your spouse or family. Relationship resilience, in my view, is something we build through sharing uplifting experiences and by weathering hurdles life throws at us.
In Story Genius, Lisa Cron writes, “We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.” It is my greatest wish for Deep Waters to engage and inspire readers, help some navigate a stroke or other calamity, and encourage everyone to invest more in worthwhile, but neglected, relationships.