Wednesday, May 26, 2010

C'mon Papa

Today we have a book review from Waterloo Vice-Principal Cindy Matthews. Read more about Cindy at the bottom. Thanks! Louise

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark
by Ryan Knighton
Random House of Canada, 2010
Review by Cindy Matthews

Books about moms raising their children are a dime a dozen. There are a limited number of books from the dad’s perspective. C’Mom Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark is truly unique in the field. It’s written from the perspective of Ryan Knighton, a father who’s blind.

Ryan is the author of an earlier book, Cockeyed, a memoir of ‘going blind, growing up and getting both wrong.’ He teaches at Capilano University, writes for a host of magazines, speaks at universities and corporations, and is working on another book. According his website: ‘there's more bio, but we're too lazy to bother with it. You get the point: he's a blind guy and an over-achiever.’

C’Mom Papa is extremely funny and honest. Ryan does an insightful job of putting us in his shoes so we can navigate his life as a husband and later as a new father. Most of the story takes place in Vancouver, Canada.

Imagine moving to a new house. We’ve all been there, tripping over stuff because the place is unfamiliar and we can’t remember putting the dang things there. Now imagine you’re blind. You don’t only have to learn how to maneuver by high-stepping throughout the house, white cane tapping or groping everything in and around you, but you have to learn to navigate a brand new neighbourhood, too. Stressful? You bet. Talk about a fear-factor moment.

Eventually both Ryan and his wife, Tracy Rawa, decide to get pregnant. Unfortunately the first pregnancy is molar, causing a benign tumour. Tracy has to endure a treatment similar to the regime for ridding the body of cancer. We learn how challenging it is for Ryan to ‘watch’ his wife go through this torture. He feels helpless. He can’t do what a ‘normal’ husband would do, like drive her to appointments. The parenting journey grinds to a halt for a year after treatment to ensure a healthy uterus.

The second pregnancy is not without anxiety. Under the supervision of a midwife who happens to be Ryan’s ex-girlfriend from high school, the soon-to-be parents learn that there’s a small risk of their baby having Down syndrome. They decide to have amniocentesis. As he accompanies Tracy through the hospital corridor, Ryan distracts himself from his fears by wondering about the other people in the corridor. Are they thinking he’s bizarre because he’s wearing a t-shirt with the f-bomb plastered on it? About awaiting the results of the test, Ryan explains: “Sentimentality is not a helpful form of pretend.” After they learn the baby does not have Down syndrome, it occurs to Ryan that he and Tracy never discussed the possibility of the baby being blind. He uses a great analogy to describe waiting for news when you’re blind. He felt like he was joining all the other waiters, time measured by the clicking of knitting needles and the flip-flip-flipping of magazine pages.

The year of waiting for the birth of daughter Tess is at times torturous. “What worried me most…was that I had so little sight left that I could easily say goodbye to it before I got the chance to glimpse the tiniest bit of my son or daughter,” Ryan says. “I wanted to piece together what I could of that face before that opportunity was taken from me for good. A year of waiting could disappear my baby from me before it had even arrived.”

Before the birth, Ryan was asked if he wanted to know the sex of the baby. Knowing might help prepare him for playing with his child. From his memories of being a boy who played, he knew boy play would be rough on a blind guy. He asked his sister how and what girls played. When she was young, she says, she would play a game called ‘coma’ and she also loved collecting cigarette butts.

When the midwife asks Ryan if he wants to catch the birthing baby, he defers the duty to her. He worries that he can’t console Tracy during labour and delivery, which he compares to ‘delivering a planet out of a straw.’ Once Tess arrives in the world, I was struck by some of the practical implications of parenting a child without sight. There’s a sad, underlying revelation that Ryan is ‘more a visitor than a father,’ fearful to pick up Tess, asking his wife for permission. Near the book’s end, Ryan reveals that his job is to learn to ‘read’ his daughter, to discern which sounds she emits contain the really critical information.

Parents of newborns can relate to the changes that force them outside of themselves, giving totally to those little poopy, crying, needy people! Now imagine becoming a parent while wearing a blindfold. Envision never being able to see your child’s face, ever. Or, how do you check to see that you fully and effectively wiped your child’s bottom during a diaper change? Then picture trying to get your child to daycare on a snow-day in a city unprepared for winter’s folly. That’s Ryan’s life.

This is a highly enjoyable, funny, ‘real’ read into Ryan’s journey into the first year of fatherhood. It’s definitely a book for adults, not kids, in that throughout the book the author throws images and language that are colourful to say the least. Don’t let that stop you. Run to get a copy of this well-constructed story, written without pity as the focus. Ryan demonstrates that he can indeed ‘see’ the emerging relationship between father and child.

Cindy is a vice-principal of Section 23 (care, custody, treatment and corrections) programs in Waterloo Region in Ontario as well as an enrichment centre for children in grades 1-8. Her daughter is entering fourth-year university and has attention deficit disorder. Cindy also teaches online special-education courses for Queen’s University in Kingston. Before becoming an administrator, Cindy assisted students with autism spectrum disorder diagnoses to be integrated into classrooms in elementary and secondary schools in Waterloo Region. You can read more of Cindy’s work at