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"Ryan Knighton can't see, true. But his capacity to look inward, to create a landscape of what it is to be
a blind parent, is nothing short of profound. He's also hilarious, and I'm warning you, you're going to cry, too.
C'mon Papa is a memoir like no other, about a life like no other."
-Alicia Erian, author of
c'mon papa

The Times Colonist
Sightless insight into parenthood

Patricia Coppard • April 25, 2010

It was the scene where Ryan Knighton has to play a cervix in a prenatal class that undid me.

I laughed out loud. Not once but several times -- on a ferry.

The Vancouver writer's latest memoir -- C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, about his first year of parenthood -- turned me into one of those annoying fellow passengers, second only to the girl with a cellphone making serial phone calls in the seat behind you.

A "sharing circle" follows the role-playing session in the prenatal class, and Knighton describes how his fellow dads-to-be try to outdo each other in revealing fears about impending parenthood.

"It also seems to be a genetic defect that men thrown together are incapable of interacting without imposing competition on the situation," he writes. "Even if it is about honesty, eventually we'll make it competitive honesty."

Knighton's previous memoir, Cockeyed, was an often hilarious account of his experiences as he slowly loses his sight, now being developed as a film with Jodie Foster directing. Yes, I said hilarious -- it was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

C'mon Papa picks up where Cockeyed left off, detailing Knighton's blind foray into fatherhood, and I mean that in both senses.

Funny and heartbreaking, it's an account fellow parents will find both deeply familiar and frustrating, in that everything a sighted parent goes through is that much more difficult for a blind one.

What we share is that unshakable feeling of inadequacy -- inadequacy in soothing an unhappy newborn, in protecting our children from any and all danger, in knowing how to be the best mother or father possible. We all go into parenthood blind, in a sense.

For Knighton, however, it's also a literal problem. Aside from the obvious practical questions -- how does a blind man change a diaper, or deal with a newly walking toddler who suddenly takes off? -- his preoccupations range from the fear there's something wrong in his inability to instantly bond with the newborn he can't see, to the worry that his disability has saddled his wife with a double burden, and precious little help.

He is determined, however, to assert his position, to be the kind of dad his father was to him, and to be a proper helpmate to his wife. When he takes his new baby, Tess, out for a solo walk in the Baby Bjorn for the first time, you feel his anxiety every tense step of the way.

Luckily, when things get heavy, there is humour, and lots of it. Knighton is a talented, clever writer, who transitions easily from introspection to comedy. There is a moment early on where Knighton and his wife, Tracy Rawa, have to decide whether to risk miscarriage by having amniocentesis to determine if their baby has Down syndrome. Rawa finally admits she wouldn't be able to cope with both Knighton's blindness and a disabled child.

Knighton writes: "We could say things like, 'We shall overcome,' or I could get out my guitar and sing 'All you need is love.' We could chew the scenery about how it didn't matter whether the baby had Down's or not, we'd remain a family, dammit, and push on -- insert Disney soundtrack here. But sentimentality is not a helpful form of pretend."

C'mon Papa is about blindness and parenthood, but it's mostly about parenthood. Knighton has a way of nailing things many parents think, but could ne'er so well express. After a frustrating encounter with a dim and self-centred student, Knighton, who teaches writing at Capilano University, ruminates on the unsatisfying tradeoffs most working parents make: daycare and work, versus full-time parenthood and penury. "I did the math. The daycare teachers would spend more waking time with Tess each week than I would. My injustice nerve twitched. I was in this classroom to earn money to pay somebody to watch her so I could be in this classroom with -- ...

"A radioactive core threatens all working parents. It is a time bomb. If too much time is taken from our kids, we implode, and we may take you down with us."

I laughed. I cried. Seriously.

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