Jim Beaver Shares What to Do When Life's That Way

Filed under: Celeb Parents

Harper's Ferry star Jim Beaver shares his personal tragedy in a new book. Photo from Getty Images.

In August of 2003, actor Jim Beaver's life started to unravel. His daughter, Madeline, was diagnosed with autism; two months later, his wife, actress and casting director Cecily Adams, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Over the next year, as the couple struggled to get help for Maddie and for Cecily, Beaver wrote a series of nightly emails to friends and family, keeping them informed about what was going on with his wife and daughter -- and himself. The emails were being forwarded around and read by thousands of people, many of whom reached out to Beaver to offer support and help.

Adams died in March of 2004, at the age of 46, leaving Beaver to raise their daughter alone. And to turn those emails, the ones that got him through what he describes as an "extremely difficult period," into a book, "Life's That Way."

Beaver is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man. You're probably familiar with his work, even if his name doesn't ring a bell. Beaver, 59, currently plays Sheriff Charlie Mills on the CBS slasher miniseries "Harper's Island," and demon slayer Bobby Singer on the CW's "Supernatural." He also appeared as prospector Whitney Ellsworth on the acclaimed HBO series "Deadwood." But these days, he's talking about his personal life and the year he spent trying to save his family.

Beaver's daughter Madeline was just shy of two when she was diagnosed with autism. Until she was 18 months old, Beaver says, she was fine. "She was a very social child; she was verbal to the extent she could be, and she had a good vocabulary for an 18 month old." His daughter, he remembers, was "exactly what one would expect from a healthy, typical kid." At 18 months, though, Maddie began to regress; she lost her vocabulary and would sit for long periods of time, staring into space. By the time she was two, she was saying only "Mama" and "Dada," and, he remembers, she was struggling to get those words out.

Activist Celeb Parents

    Actor Jim Beaver's daughter was diagnosed with autism at two; five years later, she is doing well, in large part, Beaver says, because of that early diagnosis. He is shown here at a 2004 Cure Autism Now event.

    Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

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Beaver says that Cicely was very concerned. "I was much more of a head-in-the-sand fella," he admits. "I had plenty of excuses for why we didn't need to do anything." But Cicely insisted; she was worried about Maddie's degenerating language skills."Even in our worst fears we thought ... we need to find the right teacher, or someone to tell us what changes to make to reverse the situation," Beaver recalls. They never suspected that Maddie was autistic, and they were stunned by the diagnosis.

Once the problem was identified, Cicely sprang into action. "She found intense therapy for Maddie," Beaver says, "and she read everything she could find, found the best people she could locate, got Maddie immediately into a couple of programs." The interventions made a difference; Maddie made a rapid comeback, regaining her vocabulary. Beaver says that he attributes Maddie's progress both to the fact that she was diagnosed so young and to the way his wife threw herself into finding a solution.

But then, in October of 2003, Cecily was diagnosed with lung cancer. Again, the couple were floored. Cecily, Beaver says, had smoked "once upon a time, many many years ago, as a kid, practically." But she had long ago quit, and had become, in Beaver's words "a real health nut. She was extremely conscious of anything that went into our digestive system, she was very careful about food and pesticides and everything that people pay attention to." Beaver adds quietly, "It was an enormous shock to us to discover that she had Stage IV cancer."

As he struggled to balance his daughter's therapy and his wife's cancer treatment, Beaver began writing nightly emails, detailing what he and his family were going through. "The writing of the original emails was cathartic and very meaningful to me," Beaver recalls, "because in the chaos that enveloped our lives at the time ... it was good to sit down and process what had happened." The emails did more than just offer Beaver a release, though. "I learned a great many lessons about health, about autism and cancer, but more importantly about surviving, about grieving, about the immeasurable goodness of my fellow man."

Beaver was reluctant to turn the emails into a book, though. He was hesitant to return to that period of his life, for one thing; for another, he wasn't sure he wanted to make his private story so public. "What's odd about that is that during the year I was writing the emails to family and friends, they were passing them on to others. I had several thousand people reading my emails every night." After all that, he said, "It's strange to say, 'this is private,' but it felt that way."

What changed his mind, in the end, was the knowledge that his story had value for other people. "I wanted my openness to allow people who have been in my shoes to realize that they are not the only ones who fell down at a moment of crisis or who did things that they feel guilty about," he says. "People don't often write or talk about snapping at their wife who is dying of lung cancer." But Beaver does just that, and readers have welcomed his honesty.

Beaver is philosophic about his story. "Just because a dramatic and tragic event happens in your life doesn't mean that everything else stops. There's still bills to be paid and leaky faucets and petty quarrels. You may not beat yourself up over the bills or the faucets, but I guarantee you you'll beat yourself up over the quarrels." These days, Beaver is trying not to beat himself up, but he's still working on it. He regrets that Cicely didn't get to a doctor sooner; she hadn't been feeling well for perhaps a year before her diagnosis, he says, but she ignored it. "The idea that something was nagging at her about how she felt for a year before we found out now nags at me intensely," he admits.

At the same time, though, he credits his wife for Maddie's amazing progress. Cecily's insistence that they have their daughter evaluated, and her heroic efforts to find therapy for her once she was diagnosed, have made all the difference in the world. Maddie is seven now, and, her father says, she is "far more social and outgoing and vocal and eloquent that I ever dreamed she would be." While Beaver admits that Maddie still has her rough times, "my feeling is that most of the problems that derived from her original diagnosis are gone." These days, he said, she is struggling more with the loss of her mother than with her autism.

Recently, Maddie saw a copy of her father's book and asked if she could read it. "I thought for a split second," Beaver says, "and then said, 'Okay.' She was about five pages into it before computer games caught her attention," he laughs. "I doubt it will be of much interest to her at present." But someday, he hopes, she will read the book and have a sense of what a wonderful person her mother was, and how hard she fought to save Maddie from her autism, and, Beaver says, most importantly, "how deeply she was loved by her mom." That's a amazing legacy for Jim Beaver to leave his daughter, and a wonderful way to memorialize his wife.

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