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Review: C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, by Ryan Knighton

Lumber King of the Ottawa Valley. Hector Clouthier. Mr. Clouthier developed a passion for horses from the days when animals were used to haul logs out of Ontario's forests. At home in the woodlands, he liked to fish favourite lakes with his favourite dog. For OBIT. March 2003. Very small file.


Very early on in C'mon Papa, Ryan Knighton writes that his blindness wasn't something that he and his wife, Tracy, discussed when they were deciding to have a child. Already that information isn't surprising to the reader.

Knighton's frank, perceptive, funny book acclimatizes the reader quickly to his condition, mercifully, without bravado or false cheer.

Blindness is "about as normal as air in our house," Tracy will later say to a genetic counsellor, explaining why the slim possibility that the baby will be born with the same condition (retinitis pigmentosa) that's caused Knighton's sight to slowly deteriorate since the age of 18 wasn't something they had discussed either - which isn't to say that their "normal" is an easy one.

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Parts of C'mon Papa read like a thriller. It's terrifying. He's taking the baby for a walk on a busy Vancouver street! The baby's strapped to his chest. Or he's changing the baby or he's stabbing desperately at his wailing daughter's face with a soother. She's a hard-core crier.

It's a parenthood page-turner, a rarity, and for the right reasons.

C'mon Papa isn't another stunt book. It's not A Year of Living Blind With a Newborn; it's just a different version of that old story that begins, "We had just independently arrived at the desire of the next expression of who we are together," a baby, and then continues with a father who wants "to share some of the pleasures that have shaped me" with his daughter, Tess.

He captures the new father's seldom-anticipated crushing love for his child

Yes, occasionally Knighton - whose previous book, Cockeyed, chronicled, rather Hunter S. Thompson-esqely, the onset of his blindness - veers into over-trod hipster-dad territory. The book contains some anecdotes that feel included to prove that he's edgy even though he's a dad.

These are a touch distracting and unnecessary. Knighton's wit and irreverence are apparent on every page, and besides, like Ian Brown's excellent The Boy in the Moon, C'mon Papa is ultimately less a book about being a parent under such-and-such a circumstance than it is about being human.

Oh, Knighton's blind all right. "My sight disappears in landslides," he writes, "I don't lose a bit every day, like a slow dimming of the lights. Rather, I'll be looking at an apple in the grocery store one day when suddenly it seems as if a bulb just burned out overhead and, ain't that something, a chunk of the apple's periphery just disappeared, like an island that somehow sank deeper into the ocean." But then with that in our minds (and how could that ever leave?), he continues on with the story; they're having a baby.

We don't learn much about Tracy. She's competent, warm, uncomplaining but no martyr.

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"The spouses of the blind are a mysterious people," Knighton notes, in a sense protecting her, the way he tries to protect his daughter, through writing: He's great on the urge to earn, to provide, which for him means to write, that his daughter's birth instills in him, coupled with the near impossibility of doing so with his baby always on his mind.

Yet Tracy's present in the book. Or at least there's a couple here. "Tracy and I aren't into interactive fun. We're the ones who pop Ativan when actors break the fourth wall," he writes of prenatal class, noting the competitive empathy "the sharing circle" inspires in the men, one of whom nails his answer like "a perfect Olympic dismount."

Later in the class, he writes, "Tracy and I found ourselves knee to knee, each squeezing an ice cube in our left hands. We were told to sit in silence until the cold melted away … both of us knew without a word that we wouldn't come back."

This, like much of what they navigate, will be familiar to many parents. On a visit to the geneticist, Knighton is convinced that he has worn the wrong shirt: "I was immediately overcome with a feeling, a suspicion, that we were not only going for a medical exam, but applying for the baby's health. Like a job interview."

While Tracy undergoes amniocentesis, Knighton feels ineffectual. He self-mockingly describes securing her purse: "I dropped her purse on my lap. A man of action. Her belongings were safe from these, these - helpful professionals."

As well, he captures the new father's seldom-anticipated crushing love for his child. The old story again: We grow up, have babies and they regress us to an entirely new, yet dismally familiar state of helplessness, that of being helpless to fully protect our babies.

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It's a fairly modern endeavour, the need to define oneself as a parent, to impose a narrative on something that bucks a narrative so ferociously, because actual parenthood is a state in which one must just respond and respond and respond. Or as Knighton, so authentically self-aware, realizes at the end of a harrowing walk with his wailing daughter, "Then I listened. I mean, I really listened, and in listening I realized what I was doing wrong. I wasn't paying attention to Tess."

This is what separates C'mon Papa from the canon of vaguely self-congratulatory parent-lit: It's a book about a baby, whose daddy is blind and a fine writer.

Tabatha Southey writes the Tart column in The Globe and Mail Focus section and the Elle Girl column in Elle Canada.

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