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Blind papa speaks to all parents

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C'mon Papa

Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark

By Ryan Knighton

Knopf, 247 pages, $30

A blind man navigating city streets with a cane in his hand is unlikely to attract attention from sighted passersby.

Strap a three-month-old baby to his chest and it's a different story. Heads will turn and the baby-toting blind man will have to negotiate figural as well as literal obstacles, not least of them being societal expectations about what it means to be a father.

In his new memoir, Vancouverite Ryan Knighton explores the many obstacles he encounters as he cares for his daughter Tess and forges for himself a new identity as parent.

Knighton, a professor, poet and memoirist in his 30s, is the author of a previous memoir, Cockeyed, about his loss of vision to a degenerative eye condition in his late teens.

This latest book continues the story of his life but focuses on the difference that a baby daughter makes to the already complicated work of life with a disability.

Funny and moving, this is neither a fact-driven public service announcement nor a romanticized representation of blindness. Always conscious of the pleasures and the privileges of vision, Knighton doesn't trade in comforting myths of compensation.

There are no stories about the heightening of the sense of touch or about a newfound appreciation of music, no bland assurances that life without vision is different but not difficult.

When he compares his blindness to other forms of disability, such as the loss of a limb, a condition not readily romanticized, Knighton makes the harsh realities of vision loss clear.

While blindness is central to Knighton's book, much of the material he discusses will be familiar to new parents. It includes the wonders of midwifery, the horrors of driving long distances with a screaming baby, and the questionable utility of gripe water.

Knighton may be exploring well-trodden territory but he makes it new, most obviously through his reflections on his experience of blindness but also, and equally important, through his quirky humour and his poetic, idiosyncratic style.

A particularly hilarious chapter describes Knighton's experiences at a Kansas City convention for stay-at-home dads. Eager to master the work of child rearing, befuddled attendees practise hair braiding and button sewing at sessions designed to improve their parenting.

Knighton makes the most of this rich comic material but also uses it to reflect in insightful ways on burdensome expectations about fatherhood that he developed as a child. In a comparatively sombre chapter on sleep deprivation, Knighton explores the mind-warping tyranny of baby monitors and their surprising historical link to the Lindbergh kidnapping.

While the book is centrally concerned with Knighton's growing bond with his daughter, it is also a book about partnership. It is, in fact, homage to Knighton's wife, Tracy. Their marriage is necessarily shaped by Knighton's blindness but is remarkable for other things, most notably for humour, honesty and trust.

And trust makes possible many of the adventures and misadventures that Knighton has as a blind man with a baby on board.

Nerve-wracking moments abound; one feels torn, as Knighton himself seems, between admiration for the courage it takes to walk alone with a baby after a serious encounter with the fender of an SUV and concern for baby Tess's well-being as Knighton takes significant risks, sometimes with surprising, perhaps necessary, bravado.

Well-written, thoughtful and engaging, this is a discussion of parenting with a difference, a book valuable not so much because it tells a remarkable story but because it tells its story remarkably well.

The mother of two young daughters, Vanessa Warne teaches English and disability studies at the University of Manitoba.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2010 H9

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