Friday, June 11, 2010

Ryan Knighton

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark
by Ryan Knighton
Knopf Canada, 2010

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The premise of this memoir is straightforward: blind man becomes a father. How will he handle this new stage in life, this new role, and the swaddling infant he can only see in the faint fragments available to the one per cent of his sight that remains?

Because this new, blind father is Ryan Knighton, readers will not be surprised that he handles the situation with humour, grace, and a reflective self-consciousness that takes small, private moments – like diaper changing, or helping a toddler find a lost plush toy using only the encouraging sound of her murmurs – and renders them more broadly meaningful.

Knighton’s previous memoir, 2006’s Cockeyed, told the story of his early life: his adventurous youth and his discovery, at 18, that he had retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive, inherited disorder that slowly closes the visual field, leading to tunnel vision and, often, total loss of central vision. At the beginning of this new memoir, Knighton has only a tiny remnant of sight remaining, with which he hopes to be able to see the glint of his child’s eye.

Though he’s an English teacher at Capilano University, Knighton also has lots of tattoos and a punk rock attitude. The author’s punk ethos, however, is rarely on display here. More prevalent is Knighton’s struggle to come to terms with fatherhood. Knighton’s own father exited his life early, and Knighton sharply dismisses him from the narrative. The author clearly adores his stepfather, although he features only peripherally in the book, as does Knighton’s extended family.

Knighton’s “vision” of a father as provider is complicated by the limits of his own abilities. He picks up his daughter to give his wife a break and walks into a doorframe. He takes the girl outside and loses her in the snow.

In the end, however, Knighton has less to say about fatherhood than he does about being a partner in a functioning marriage. Knighton’s wife, Tracy, is the true hero of this book. Knighton praises her repeatedly, and deservedly so. Ultimately, the book is a testament to the power of partnership, humour, and optimism.

Review first published in Quill and Quire.

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