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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
 Towelhead
c'mon papa

Ottawa Citizen
Blindly coping with fatherhood
by
James Macgowan

I wonder what British Columbia's statute of limitations is on child abuse. I wonder, too, if Ryan Knighton and his wife Tracy thought about this as he was writing his funny, poignant but unsparing new memoir C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark.

I ask this because, wow, there are some things in this book that will make a parent's hair stand on end and do the watusi. There are also things in this book that will bring nods of recognition from fathers, though in Knighton's life, they are much more pronounced. Blindness will do that.

For more than 20 years, Knighton, who is 37, has been living with retinitis pigmentosa, which he brilliantly chronicled in his earlier memoir, Cockeyed, shortlisted for the 2007 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Cockeyed is now being developed as a film with Jodie Foster directing.

Pigmentosa is a congenital eye disease marked by a progressive deterioration of the retinas and, in most cases, it leads to total blindness. At the moment, he has about one-per-cent vision in his right eye, which allows him to see not much more than the head of a pin. Everything else appears to him as if he is looking through a lens smeared with Vaseline.

Throw in parenting duties and, well, you can see where this is going: Toward another Hey!-I'm-a-new-father!-Look-how-messed-up-things-got chronicle.

Sadly, the experience of being a father for the first time is a cliché-ridden topic seemingly every male writer feels the need to share at some point. (Yes, that includes me.)

But with Knighton there are obvious differences. First of all, he is a wonderful writer with a gift for laughter when the situation requires it; and even when it doesn't, he is still able to make it work. Being used as a life-size example of a cervix at a prenatal class is an example of the former:

"How thick are you? (the instructor) asked ... "Well, oh, I'd say I'm a good half-inch." ... "That's right!" (she) chirped ... "And how big is your hole?" she asked ... I poked a finger into my hole. "About an inch, I'd guess."

Almost setting his daughter Tess on fire would be an example of the latter: "We should dress her in these and put a picture up on the blog," he tells Tracy, referring to Tess's burnt shoes. "Let people speculate."

Secondly, Knighton is very adept at making his blindness palpable. He hasn't seen his own face in 10 years, but when his unborn daughter appears on the ultrasound screen, he harbours the inexplicable thought that maybe, just maybe, he'll be able to see something. The sadness and frustration he feels is flagrant: "It remained an abstraction. An idea reconstituted from Tracy's description. A flash. I thrilled in front of the computer screen, hunting for a heartbeat's shape, but seeing nothing. I could feel my desire caged and pressed against the bars, wanting to experience the freedom and immediacy of sight."

Surrounding this scene is the loss of their first baby, who died in the womb. That too is devastatingly rendered, as heartbreaking as Tess's birth is darkly comical.

As for Tess, she comes across as a wonderfully smart and precocious child, who can split the atom with her shrieking cries. She also happens to be a train-wreck of a sleeper. Tracy, who has full sight, is the one who mostly deals with this, a fact Knighton is very self-conscious about. (In the delivery room, he can only help by getting out of the way.)

So one day, to give her a break and feel less useless, Knighton decides to take Tess for a walk. This is a cringe-inducing moment -- you will find yourself looking up the number for Children's Aid -- though to be fair, Tracy appears horrified by the thought and suggests she go with them.

Knighton, however, is determined to go it alone, and while father and daughter survive, the walk is not without incident or accident.

There are more fraught moments to come. He bangs Tess's head on a doorframe; is unable to notice that the kilo of bread she has just wedged into her mouth is now choking her; that the burning smell he has been searching the house for is actually coming from the hat and sweater he is about to put on Tess; that taking Tess outside after a blizzard without her being in some way tethered to him is not, perhaps, his greatest idea. (Tess quickly vanishes, he has no clue where.)

It's all very exhausting, especially for Tracy, who must do double duty, protecting Tess from Ryan and Ryan from himself.

But it takes a toll on Knighton as well.

The joy of fatherhood eludes him and he finds it very difficult to feel like a father when he too must be babied.

In the end, it all comes down to Tess, who, amidst the snow and Knighton's horrible thoughts, points their relationship in the right direction when she reaches out and grabs his hand -- and says, "C'mon." It is a magical moment in this incredibly honest, eloquent and moving book.



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