Ryan Knighton, C’mon Papa

[Apologies for the Bridget-less picture—for some reason, the parenting book was the one she didn’t want to pose with.] 

What’s the target audience for parenting memoirs? Other parents, presumably. Having a baby is by default an isolating experience, one that renders the new mom or dad instantly unable to relate to large swaths of their well-rested peer group. Each parent interprets this exclusivity in his or her own way—some get religious about it, some prickly and agitated, some hippy dippy—but the change is real, and extremely difficult to describe. I have a hard time imagining any non-parent seeking out a book about parenting, let alone getting much use out of it.

Which means that I’ve now probably cleared the room of any non-parents reading this, too. Oh well. The book under discussion is C’mon Papa, by Vancouver’s Ryan Knighton, and we are here, essentially, to compare notes. What helped him rock his hysterical infant to sleep? Did he and his wife Tracy use cloth diapers? When was the moment he felt that click of dangerously intense love, that moment he realized he’d murder a stranger with a shovel before letting anything happen to his daughter?

Knighton’s story is complicated in a few big ways, all of which stem from the fact that he’s blind. At the age of 18 he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which means “[p]oorly behaved genes programmed [his] retinas to painlessly self-destruct—very, very slowly.” Knighton has roughly 1% vision remaining in his right eye, a small window into the world that might permanently shut at any moment. One of his big fears going into his wife’s pregnancy was that he’d lose this final slice of eyesight before ever seeing his child’s face.

Thankfully, he makes it.

C’mon Papa is, cover to cover, an absolute joy to read: warm, witty, spry, and expertly observed. The book moves from Knighton’s wife’s first signs of pregnancy (she ultimately miscarries) to the time their daughter, Tess, is about 18 months old, walking and talking up a storm. He covers some of the obvious territory, like embarrassing role play at a prenatal class, but most of the time follows his own trajectory, and hones in on the moments that uniquely strike him as being significant.

There’s a fine combination of set pieces to choose from, including a bizarre stay-at-home dads’ conference in Kansas City. Most, however, are tied to Knighton’s explorations of what his life as a blind parent can or should be like—he slowly pushes at his instinctive boundaries, building up the confidence to take Tess for a walk on busy Commercial Drive, or even little things like changing a diaper unsupervised. He’s a crisp and efficient stylist, too. The sections where he loses Tess while playing in the snow, or imagines her silently choking while he sits in front of her, oblivious, are vivid and terrifying, yet utterly relatable.

Knighton’s blindness makes him ultra-attuned to the minutiae of everyday parenting, yes, but there’s more to it than that. If anything, the differences he points out, often to devastating comic effect, only further underscore how universal the process of having children really is. Every parent knows the feeling of hearing your infant scream, but having no idea what that particular scream means; the only difference is that Knighton lacks visual cues, too. He describes one of the limitations of his condition as “a difficulty interfacing with visual information,” and that includes his daughter. When she cries, it’s about “literacy,” he says—“I was learning how to listen to Tess.” This is a difference of degree, not in kind. 

C’mon Papa is full of such illuminating tidbits, each of which is delivered with punch and heart. And it’s actually, thankfully, low on advice—the only thing he insists is that all parents buy an exercise ball, which simultaneously soothes an infant and keeps your butt toned. In the end, Knighton’s experience with Tess is remarkable not because it’s different, but because it’s exactly the same.

Knopf Canada, 272 pp., $29.95, hardcover

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, September 30, 2010)

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