Beth Ann Mathews, DEEP WATERS: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled

Beth Ann Mathews, DEEP WATERS: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled

Zibby interviews marine biologist and author Beth Ann Mathews about her thoughtful and provoking new book Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled. Beth talks about her husband’s stroke and the impact it had on their lives as sailors, scientific researchers, and all-around adventure-seekers. Zibby reveals she is on an Alaska literary kick, and Beth shares what it was like to live there for twenty years. She also talks about her writing process, revealing she took meticulous notes throughout the terrifying experience, signed up for a memoir-writing class, and is working on another book!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Beth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled.

Beth Ann Mathews: The pleasure is mine, Zibby. It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners about your book? Tell everything about your book.

Beth: Yes, everything. I’m a marine biologist. I grew up in Indiana. I ended up in Alaska where I had a career for twenty years working at the university and teaching. My husband was a field scientist there. When our son was nine — we were both working at our careers. Life was good. One morning, my very healthy husband, the kind of guy who actually rode his bike to work in the winter in Alaska with studded tires and special booties to keep the snow from shoving up his cuffs — just that winter before, he came and brought me coffee that morning. Then the next thing I knew, he was coughing and choking. He had been slammed by a very rare type of stroke that was actually triggered by scraping and painting our skylight. That incident is the inciting incident of my book. The book is really how we navigated the next year as a couple and a family. We did clash on how his recovery would proceed. He was very, very determined to walk again. He was not able to walk after the stroke. Swallowing without choking was difficult. He had trouble reading. He had nystagmus where his eyes jittered side to side. My reaction was to be very protective of him and keep him safe at home, but we were sailors. We are sailors. We had a boat. We still have that same boat. My husband and I lived on it for seven years before our son was born. He really wanted to get out and go sailing in Alaska’s Inside Passage, which has some risk involved in it. We did eventually do that. The book is the story of that first year of how we worked through our conflict of me wanting to hold him back but him really needing to get out and do these adventurous things that he always loved to push his body and himself to recover. Ultimately, I think it’s a very uplifting story in that the stroke pushed me to reevaluate my priorities and make a decision to live a less secure but more adventurous, connected life at the end.

Zibby: It’s funny. When you were talking about his desire to get out there and be adventurous and your knee-jerk instinct to keep him close and safe, I was like, this sounds so much like how I am with my children.

Beth: You’re exactly right. It is. Actually, the first day I had to leave him, my husband, home alone — he’s just a super competent guy. He also was a little bullheaded about insisting on not — he was sent home with a walker and a wheelchair. I was told that he would need those for several weeks. He absolutely refused to use them. Our main home was on the second floor. He would be inclined to go up and down the stairs. Our first clash after we got home — we are a very solid couple. We love each other so much. We’re good friends. I just couldn’t help it. I was fearful. I had to go to work. I had this image embedded in my head of him falling down the stairs because he had almost fallen during one of the rehab training sessions. It was an accident caught midair. I had to figure out how to dial back that protective nature, just like we do with our young children as they’re growing. We have to let them make mistakes, let them fall down and get hurt so they can pick themselves up. There was definitely tension around that.

Zibby: My daughter, yesterday, was like, “Can you cut an apple up for me?” I was busy with the camp forms or something.” She’s like, “Actually, you taught me how to do this the other day. I can do this.” I was like, “Wait. Just hold on. Give me a second. Then I’ll do it.” Then I was thinking to myself, she’s going to cut off her finger. Then I was like, but if I don’t let her ever cut an apple, how is she ever not going to cut off her finger? I ended up stopping what I was doing and went around her with my hands hovering so that if it were to slip, I could pull her away. She did it fine. I’m like, maybe next time I’ll slowly — not that this is analogous. I know your husband went through, as you detailed so well in the book — I feel like I was there with you every step of the way of that horrific first day in the medivac and the whole thing. It’s that sense of, could I control it? I probably couldn’t have. She could’ve cut her finger off even if I was an inch away if it was going to happen. Anyway, there you are.

You wrote about your son in the book a lot too and how it was so important to you to keep him close to you during that first day and getting him a spot on the plane. I was rooting for him so much. I’m like, no, what is she going to do if she has to leave her son? I don’t usually read the back of the books before I start reading them. Ages ago, I read what it’s about, and then I kind of forget and put them in the “yes” pile so that I’m always surprised by what happens. I have to say, I was like, oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen? Is he having a stroke? Is this going to be nothing? Is this the worst thing ever? It was so terrifying as a reader not knowing the outcome. The way you did all that stress and suspense, really, almost, in the way you told the story was really powerful.

Beth: Thank you. I assume that you were okay with that.

Zibby: Of course, I’m okay with that. Of course. Even little details, I was wondering how you remember all this and if you took notes at the time of who said what to you when and which colleague and who came in the room, all that stuff. How do you remember any of it? Sometimes with trauma, you just forget the whole thing.

Beth: I have, on and off throughout my life, kept journals. I’m not a journal writer with a capital J where I would put them on the library shelf. They’re in an assortment of notebooks and so on. I’m sure my training as a field biologist — I kept field notes as things were happening. Right away, even in that medivac jet, I started writing things down about what was happening, what I was hearing from the doctors, and also blebbing right into it, my emotions. There was no separation between the scientist side and the, “Oh, my gosh, this is my husband,” very emotional, alarmed side. Actually, at first, I didn’t have a notebook. The first day, I bought one. I drew upon that so much. One of the things I noticed — I don’t know if other people are like this. If I have a good pen and nice paper, my handwriting is actually quite good because I grew up in that era. My handwriting can change with urgency or the mood. I can see on the pages and almost feel, in some cases, the sense of fear and alarm coming through my handwriting. Even when the doctors would come by, I would take notes then. Those scrawled notes, not only the exact words I might use, but the way I wrote and maybe how the page had a stain of coffee on it, all those little organic clues helped me open — what I think of when I’m writing memoir, I’ve come to think of it as, if I approach a scene that I haven’t drafted yet, I think there’s a trapdoor lid that I have to open.

The first time I try to get at it, I don’t want to do it. It’s going to be too hard. I open that first trapdoor, and then the writing for that first draft takes me down to the next trapdoor. It opens. Before I know it, I am back in the place, smelling, feeling it. Those journals helped. Virginia Mason Hospital, years later, was very good about releasing — of course, with my husband’s permission — all of his medical records. I got all of them. It was remarkable. Where I had something in my notes about something happening, I could corroborate it and get the medical detail. I’m not a doctor. I’m not trying to write a book as if I am, but I wanted, of course, to have as much accurate about how his situation unfolded and the ups and downs of it. Then another memory prompt I used — I didn’t have much in that case, but when I write about our sailing, we have a logbook for the boat. It’s a preprinted one. It’s wonderful. You’re supposed to record when you leave and enter a harbor. I wrote by hand in those. I could go back to those to tell some of our — the book does have adventure in it, outdoor adventure. It’s not all in a hospital. I think other writers probably do this too, but referencing photos, to me, can open gates to memory.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome. The outdoor adventure and the fact that you’re in Juneau, Alaska, to start and even how to deal with the medical care there and life afterwards — I worked with a woman, Leigh Newman, who wrote a book that takes place in Alaska. She’s from Alaska. I have a bookseller friend who I email with who’s in Alaska. The Great Alone, of course, by Kristin Hannah.

Beth: Oh, yes, I love that.

Zibby: Even Mothertrucker, another memoir that took place in Alaska. I feel like I’ve been on a literary Alaska kick. It’s so interesting because I feel like Alaska, it’s a character already. You know that that’s a character in the book.

Beth: Absolutely. It’s a character that I think a lot of us fall in love with. Yet it’s a character that can be unforgiving too. Alaska holds a place in my heart. We don’t live there now. I find myself missing it. We are planning to go back next summer for part of the summer.

Zibby: What drew you there to begin with?

Beth: My husband. We were a new couple. He got offered a job to lead the research division at Glacier Bay National Park. We were really in our early stages of being a couple. I can remember when he got that phone call and the job offer. He hung up the phone. I knew it was something really important. He kind of rubbed his jaw and thought for a moment. I knew it was important. I said, “Do you want me to leave?” Then he said, “No.” He turned to me. He said, “What do you think about moving to Alaska with me?” I had done some research up there. I grew up in Indiana. I had never thought about living there. I love it. I had been there for a whole summer camping and so on. I just jumped up and said yes. Then that started our life there. I got a job at the university teaching and doing research, actually, doing research in Glacier Bay on harbor seals and sea lions and taking my students up into this tidewater glacial fjord at the head of Glacier Bay where, at that time, there were three or four thousand harbor seals that bred and rested on — they used the floating glacial ice as their resting areas rather than land. It’s a real different, dynamic habitat where they’re moving past us. I loved it up there. I loved working with my students. I had just fantastic students. That’s how we ended up in Alaska for twenty years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. Do you ever just feel worried that something else is going to happen? This all came out of the blue. Everything was going fine. Have you gotten to a place where you’re like, okay, that was a — how do you process all this now?

Beth: That’s a good question. Earlier on, even when my husband was released from the hospital, what they told him was that the kind of stroke he had, it was not caused by clogged arteries. They did more MRIs on him than anyone I know. His blood vessels were clear. They described it as an unusual accident, very unlikely to happen again. Basically, his vertebral artery — that’s the artery that goes into your brain through the back of your skull. It makes an S curve before it goes into your head. The scraping and painting of the skylight, he had bent his neck a lot. The most common cause of that kind of stroke is painting ceilings. Plumbers get them. I think it’s rare enough that, like a lot of things, there might be secondary factors, but they don’t know what they are yet. When he left the hospital, he was unlikely to have another stroke. I heard that intellectually, but subliminally, I did, I worried about him. He did have neurological — his balance, he had trouble. Right after the stroke, he leaned a few degrees to the left and had to unlearn that and learn how to walk. Out on the boat especially, I worried about him going overboard. I still did worry that if he had a stroke out there, could I get him to safety?

It’s okay it’s a spoiler, but he does live. I think that will be evident. He’s going strong. He’s on the boat right now. He worked very, very hard at the rehab. I think there was a bit of serendipity for us also, timing serendipity, in that right about the year he had his stroke, there was a big pulse of exciting information coming out into the popular literature on brain plasticity. There was a book published called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge that chronicled a lot of these different cases where scientists and people who had a stroke were discovering that by really pushing the body, that there was more rewiring potential than we had previously thought. My husband, coincidentally, had listened to a podcast interviewing that author about five or six months before he had his stroke. I think his appreciation of that and then the benefit through the medical community helped him put the commitment behind the hard work that stroke recovery victims have to do. The physical therapy, it’s hard stuff. You can give up or lose hope because the progress isn’t often that visible.

Zibby: Why write a book about this?

Beth: Initially, I didn’t set out to write a book. I was really compelled to share some of the dramatic stories, as I mentioned, initially in journals. I was so impressed with my husband, his fight to regain his physical self. I wanted to tell stories about it. I did eventually sign up to take a memoir-writing class in California at a community college. One of the first things the instructor there, whose name is Steve Boga, said — I heard him say this to other students too. A lot of people would come in wanting to write about their grandmother or someone else. He said, “Usually, memoir is a lot more powerful if it’s your journey. You have a journey that’s worth sharing.” I shifted my focus a little bit. Then before I knew it, I had all these chapters. I had scenes and then chapters. I didn’t say the word book out loud. It was like it would be a bad omen. I didn’t think about it early on because it felt pretentious. I am trained as a biologist. I’ve always loved writing. I was a pretty good science writer, not prolific or anything, but I knew how to write. Writing a scientific paper is very different than writing a memoir, so I had a lot to learn. Then I think because I started taking classes and I was around other writers, a few of whom took me under their wing and said, “You can write a book –” Dan O’Neill is a published author who did that early on. Then I had a few other mentors who started giving me courage. Eventually, I said that four-letter word out loud, probably to my husband first. I still can’t believe. You know what it’s like when you feel your first book in your hands.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Beth: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s exciting. Your husband and also your son, how do they feel about being written about? Was there any negotiation involved at the outset?

Beth: They both have been so wonderfully supportive. No censorship at all. My husband, I have learned, he — every now and then along the way, I would have him read a chapter. I interviewed him a lot also. That was a benefit I had. Of course, a lot of women have written about their husbands who didn’t survive. That’s a much more difficult pathway. I interviewed him. Then occasionally, I would give him a chapter to read. I didn’t, for example, ask him to read the opening chapter for a long time. One evening, I went to a friend’s book launch. This was in Cotati, California. She had invited two other friends of hers who were writers to read as well, as she was reading from her — one of them bailed at the last second. It was at a restaurant. We came early. We had a beer and dinner. She said, “Beth, my friend bailed. Could you read one of your scenes?” I said, “Oh, sure.” I happened to have an iPad with a story I’d written recently. My husband was not even in it. It’s the scene — I don’t expect you to remember everything. It’s a scene that shows my relationship with my son. We’re in the hotel room. It’s week one. We’re exhausted. He gave me that, having a child around. He’s a really delightful person and a solid friend of mine also. We ordered pizza. There’s something that happened that was actually quite funny. I had not laughed, of course. He was making me laugh. As everybody knows, that release of laughter can be so healthy. It’s like your body just needs it.

Then it spills over, and I’m suddenly crying. I hadn’t really cried. I’d held it together to be his advocate. That’s the scene I read. While I was reading it in the restaurant, my husband suddenly stood up and walked out. I saw that happen. I finished reading. I thought, what’s up? What’s happened? Found him out in the patio. He said, “I just couldn’t go back there.” He was very, very upset, hands deep in his pockets. I started crying. I said, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He said, “No, no, it was fine. You did a great job. You had that audience in your hands. Your writing is good. I just can’t go there.” I learned that I couldn’t just expect him to jump in and do something like that. He did sit down, he read the whole thing through. He had some feedback, but none of it was — I go into some personal stuff. I show each of us in not-good light. We aren’t a perfect couple. We do have disagreements and argue. That’s what makes it real. He never once said, you can’t write about that. I just feel he’s a brave man. To me, that just makes me love him more.

Zibby: It’s so emotional. You also pair all of this sadness with bits of humor too, even when you’re talking about, at the beginning, how he was — it was before work. He adopted a certain stance which you knew meant that he wanted to have sex. I was like, oh, my gosh, what is this stance? What do you think they’re doing?

Beth: Early on, I left some of that out, but it was so important to our story. People who’ve been together a long time, we know each other’s signals. I knew he wanted to make love. For me, I had this full day of work ahead. I just flagrantly ignored his signal. Then of course, I had some regret about that later. I really was in that mode of — I had a checklist for the day. He might have been on it, but he was at the very bottom. I didn’t give him the attention he deserved.

Zibby: On the other hand, it could’ve happened during that, and that would’ve been really tough.

Beth: That is exactly what you bring up. We had a slight disagreement in our views of that later that surprised me because neither of us knew exactly what the other person thought after the fact. We had to come to terms with that. Still an unknown. Anyway, there’s no hard feelings. Why bother?

Zibby: I’m really impressed. I think it’s awesome that you decided to write the book, that you wrote it so well. Your prose is really good. Now you should move on to other narrative novels. I don’t know. You could do a lot. Do you have plans to do another book?

Beth: I do have another book, actually, that is all — it’s completely drafted. I initially thought I was writing a book that spanned more time. Then a friend of mine — one day, I read what is now the last chapter in that book. She said, “You know, that could be the end of your book.” It was too long. I have another book I’ve written that actually started thirty years before this one.

Zibby: That’s so interesting.

Beth: I can’t wait to get back to it. It needs more revision, of course, but I’ve got a full draft. I plan to put that out there. It’ll take me a while to get it all polished up. I was thinking about it recently. It has a similar arc. It is about loss, adventure, and love. That’s what this book, Deep Waters, is about.

Zibby: For a book — maybe not a life; I don’t know — good combination for a good read. Maybe not for a good year of life. Thank you so much, Beth. Thank you for coming on and for sharing your story with us.

Beth: Zibby, thank you so much for having me. I look forward to hearing more about your life because you’ve got a lot going on.

Zibby: Thank you.

Beth Ann Mathews, DEEP WATERS: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled

DEEP WATERS: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled by Beth Ann Mathews

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