The Lives of Others

THE LIVES OF OTHERS

Two women gave birth on the same day in a place called Come By Chance. They didn’t know each other, and never would. Half a century later, their children made a shocking discovery.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 113


Lindsay Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has written for The Globe and Mail, Topic, The Walrus, and Vice. Listen to Lindsay discuss this story on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Nina Zweig
Photographer: Jessie Brinkman Evans

Published in March 2021.

If you would like to share a story about a birth or mixup that occurred at a cottage hospital in Newfoundland, please contact the author: lindsayleejones@gmail.com.

ONE

Rita Hynes lugged her pregnant body up the rural hospital’s wooden steps. It was the night of December 7, 1962, and her rounded belly tightened with each contraction. At just 20, Rita knew what she was in for. She had given birth two years prior, to a girl. Rita wasn’t married then, so the priest from her Catholic fishing hamlet on the southern coast of Newfoundland had snatched the infant from her arms and slapped Rita across the face. The baby would be raised by an aunt and uncle.

Rita, a slip of a woman, with blond hair and a rollicking laugh, soon became pregnant again by the baby girl’s father, a burly, blue-eyed fisherman named Ches Hynes, who was 11 years her senior. The couple married in the summer of 1961, the same day their son Stephen was born. But their happiness was short-lived: Stephen died as an infant, in his sleep.

Now Rita was pregnant for a third time. At the hospital, she felt the intensifying crests of pain—at first bearable, and then searing as the night wore on. Just after midnight, she heard the cries of her eight-pound baby pierce the air. A boy! She named him Clarence Peter Hynes, after his godfather, who was a close friend of her husband’s, and her brother, who had died in a fishing accident. Clarence was deposited in the hospital’s nursery and tucked into a bassinet, while Rita dozed in the women’s ward. This time, she surely hoped, no one and nothing would take her baby.

Clarence, whom everyone calls Clar, grew up in a fishing town, St. Bernard’s, perched on the edge of Newfoundland’s Fortune Bay. He was the first in a steady stream of infants to arrive at the Hyneses’ home, a small taupe bungalow on a hill overlooking the quay, with its fish sheds painted the bright colors of jelly beans. As a youngster, Clar watched out the kitchen window for boats steaming into the crescent-shaped harbor and then furiously pedaled his bike down to the wharf. He earned $4 an hour unloading and weighing nets teeming with squid and silver cod.

Clar slept in a top bunk in a room he shared with his brothers. They were fairer than he was—Clar had a toasty complexion and a thick head of dark hair. When they wanted to torment him, his brothers called him Freddy Fender, after the Mexican-American musician. He grew to become a local heartthrob, with a chiseled brow and lean, muscular frame. Clar was a natural athlete who excelled at hockey and cross-country. Rita, a typical hockey mom, banged on the glass during his games and leaned over the railings to yell at the referees.

At 16, when Clar left home for Ontario to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rita cried for days. She knelt on a chair at the kitchen window, clutching her rosary beads and praying to God to bring her son back. She kept all the letters he sent her in her closet. When Clar did return, driving his navy blue Chevy Camaro into the village after many months away, the teenage girls of St. Bernard’s swooned. “Oh, Clar is so handsome!” his sister, Dorothy, remembered hearing again and again—her friends were always talking about her big brother.

Clar was 24 when he met a woman named Cheryl at a motel bar in Marystown, farther down the boot-shaped peninsula from where he grew up. Clar had an on-and-off girlfriend at the time, but when he saw Cheryl he was smitten. With pretty, bow-shaped lips and curly blond hair, she was the belle of the bar. She’d recently moved back to Newfoundland from the Toronto area, where she’d worked as a hairstylist. Cheryl noticed Clar looking at her. She didn’t normally date guys from rural fishing communities, or “down over the road.” They were a hard bunch. But as she and Clar talked over beers and glasses of Screech rum and 7Up, Cheryl found him attentive and kind. They danced and chatted the night away. She didn’t want it to end.

They were marriedtwo years later in Marystown’s white, steepled Anglican church. The ceremony was packed to the gills with family. Rita wore a royal blue dress with puffed sleeves, and her husband Ches a dark gray suit. They were thrilled to see Clar tie the knot.

Rita was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer a few years later, at 50. Clar nursed her as a mother would a baby. He held her and rocked her in the Hyneses’ old bungalow on the hill, making sure to face a window on the ocean so she could see the waves. Rita stayed with Clar and Cheryl at their home “in town,” as everyone calls Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, during the futile treatment she underwent. Clar spoon-fed his mother bowls of fish and potatoes. He spent day after day with her right up until the end, so she would never be alone.

Five years after that, lung cancer took Ches.

Clar and Cheryl built a life together in St. John’s, raising three children of their own. When the fishery that had sustained generations of islanders collapsed, Newfoundland’s economy reoriented itself around the offshore oil and gas business. By 2014, Clar had a job as a welding foreman at Bull Arm, one of the industry’s major fabrication sites, where employees were building an oil platform that would eventually be towed out to sea.

That December, 52 years to the day after Rita brought him into the world, Clar overheard a woman in the hallway just outside his office sing out to a coworker, “It’s Craig’s birthday!” The woman’s name was Tracey Avery, and she was a cleaner at Bull Arm. She was talking about her husband, who also worked at the site. How funny, Clar thought. “It’s my birthday, too,” he said with a laugh.

“Yes, b’y,” Tracey replied. (B’y is pronounced “bye”—the Newfoundland expression is one of surprise, like “oh really?”) “How old are you?”

When Clar told her his age, Tracey’s next words came tumbling out: “Where were you born?”

“Come By Chance Cottage Hospital,” Clar said.

Tracey stood stock still for a second, her mouth agape. Then she ran, leaving her mop and cart behind. Clar shivered.

In that moment, a secret began to worm its way into the light: Another child had been taken from Rita Hynes—and she wasn’t alone.

From left: Clar Hynes; his childhood home in St. Bernard’s.

TWO

Depending on how you look at it, the stirring of this long-buried truth was sheer coincidence—one of those wild things that just happens—or it was inevitable, born of the quiddity of place. Newfoundland, the island portion of the sprawling Canadian province known as Newfoundland and Labrador, is a massive triangular rock in the Atlantic Ocean, colonized centuries ago for its fishing grounds. It has a rugged coastline, with hundreds of communities nestled into crooks, crannies, and coves. Some towns have blush-inducing names such as Heart’s Desire, Leading Tickles, and Dildo, and each is its own remote kingdom, fortified by rolling bluffs. Extended families are vast and tightly bound. For a long time they had to be. In such an austere place, it was a matter of survival. Today on “the rock,” as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are—they are the first things people ask about when they meet you.

Getting anywhere along Newfoundland’s 6,000 miles of mountainous coast has always been a challenge. In the early 20th century, people in many of the island’s approximately 1,300 outports—the local term for fishing towns—had limited access to health care. Cottage hospitals, strategically located to serve dozens of outports at once, were intended to eliminate unnecessary death and suffering. They were a place to have your appendix out, get stitched up after an accident, or give birth and recover under the care of qualified doctors and nurses. They heralded a new dawn for Newfoundland. According to Edward Lake, a nurse and health administrator who worked in cottage hospitals and later wrote the definitive account of their history, they were the start of the most advanced rural health care program North America had ever seen, forerunners to Canada’s publicly funded national system.

The first seven cottage hospitals opened in 1936. One was located in the village of Come By Chance, which had been given its curious name by English colonists. As the story goes, in 1612, white explorers came ashore in one bay, only to discover a well-worn path to another bay on another coastline. The path had been cut by the indigenous Beothuk people. (The Beothuk were wiped out in the 19th century by the encroachment of white settlers.) The route led to the mouth of a river flush with salmon. It was a fortuitous find, which perhaps explains why the colonists later christened the settlement they built there Come By Chance. More than three centuries on, the village would prove a prime spot for a cottage hospital, with more than 50 outports close by.

The cottage hospitals were cookie-cutter clapboard buildings designed to be inviting. From the outside they looked like quaint residences. Strangely, in Come By Chance, the hospital was built the wrong way round, with its back to the road. For those inclined to superstition, the error might seem like an omen—a foretelling of bigger mix-ups to come.

Pregnant women arrived at the hospital in Come By Chance in an unending procession, by dirt road and dory, from capes and islets; many stayed in nearby boarding houses until their time came. Newfoundland and Labrador was the last province to join Canada, in 1949, an event that brought prosperity through access to national social programs. Baby bonuses—money paid to mothers with children under the age of 16—were a luxury for families subsisting on meager fisherman’s wages. The promise of cash spurred a baby boom. By 1958, Newfoundland’s families were, on average, the largest in Canada—households had seven, eight, even ten or more children. Many women returned to the cottage hospitals to give birth on a nearly annual basis.

Among them was Mildred Avery. She was petite, with dark, deep-set eyes, and came she from a Protestant hamlet called Hillview, on Trinity Bay. By the age of 29, five children, all boys, filled the biscuit-box house built by her husband, Donald; he’d towed the logs from the woods by horse and sled. On December 7, 1962, Mildred arrived in Come By Chance to deliver her sixth child. She slept off and on as contractions gradually unlocked the life inside her. At dawn the next morning the baby emerged, wailing heartily after taking its first breath. It was another boy, weighing in at six pounds, four ounces. Mildred named him Craig Harvey Avery, after her brother.

Seven hours earlier, Rita Hynes had given birth in the same hospital. The women didn’t know each other, and they never would. They were from opposing bays, separated by an expanse of rock and dead-end roads—some 75 miles that neither had reason to traverse. Also, back then, Catholics and Protestants rarely mixed.

Mildred took Craig home to Hillview, adding him to her brood. He and his brothers slept in a pack, like puppies in a pile. From the start Craig was different. Nobody in the Avery family could figure out who he looked like. He grew into a strapping blue-eyed jokester, nothing like his quiet, dark-haired siblings. 

Craig’s childhood was wild and full of mischief. He caught tomcods at the Hillview wharf, hunted duck and rabbit, and played hockey and softball until his mother’s calls echoed across the bay. His father worked variously as a woodcutter, carpenter, fisherman, and mason. Craig was often at his side. Donald had high, sculpted cheekbones, like those of a male fashion model. Craig had freckles and a bowl cut.

Mildred worried about her children as hard as she loved them. On Sundays she cooked Jiggs dinner, a traditional meal consisting of salt beef boiled with potatoes, turnips, and cabbage, served with roast moose, chicken, or turr, a plump black and white seabird. The aroma would waft up the road, beckoning her children home from play. Forever in service to her family, Mildred didn’t sit down to eat with Donald and the kids. She waited by the enamel cookstove until everyone else finished, then helped herself to what was left.

Craig quit school in the tenth grade and joined his brother Wayne in Ontario at an American Standard factory, making porcelain sinks and toilets. He was on the rowdy side, “a bit of a ticket,” as Newfoundlanders say—a guy who picked fights and chased all the pretty girls. He left his cowboy shirts unbuttoned at the collar and wore his hair in a tight perm. When he moved back to Hillview, Craig got odd jobs, cutting brush and helping build an extension on the wharf—he did a little bit of everything, just like his father. He became the brother who took care of family members when they needed a hand, stacking their wood or shoveling their snow.

Craig married his first wife, from the next cove over, in a little white church. Several years later, after three children and a divorce, he found his forever woman, the sister of one of the men he played softball with. Tracey was spunky, the type who didn’t miss a beat, with sparkling eyes and a coiffed brown bob. Eventually, they both got jobs at Bull Arm—the same site where Clar Hynes was employed.

It was Tracey who first noticed him, the man who looked strikingly like her in-laws. Clar had Mildred Avery’s brown eyes and strong nose, and he could have been the twin of one of Craig’s brothers. “My God, there’s someone there that looks so much like Clifford,” Tracey told her husband after her first day at the work site, in 2014. The Averys got to know Clar a little, in the somewhat formal way colleagues do. But they didn’t think much more about the uncanny likeness until that December.

After her exchange with Clar outside his office on his and Craig’s birthday, Tracey raced toward the tool storage area, where Craig was in charge of the equipment. She swung open the door, cursing in her yellow hard hat. “I got something to tell ya,” she sputtered, waving her arms at her husband, who was standing near the counter where workers checked out tools. “It’s gonna blow your mind—blow your mind.”

It’s also Clarence Hynes’s birthday, she said, and he’s 52! Just like you! And get this, Tracey continued, her voice rising: He was born at Come By Chance Cottage Hospital!

Husband and wife looked at each other, shock in their eyes. My God, Craig thought. His mother, amused by how different he was from his siblings, used to laugh and tell him, “My son, I don’t know where I got you.” Was it possible that a family joke was something more? Had Mildred Avery left Come By Chance with the wrong baby?

That night, Tracey and Craig sat up in their queen-size bed, talking and drinking black tea until the sun rose over the bluffs. It was a huge mental leap from recognizing a series of coincidences to wondering if he was switched at birth, but inside Craig knew—he just knew. Something clicked into place, a piece of his existence that had always stuck out awkwardly. His mind spun with questions: How did it happen? What was my life supposed to be like? Where would I be now? What would I be doing?

The Averys began to spy on Clar, more or less—they’d decided they needed photos of him to show Craig’s siblings. After a few days, Tracey got her chance. They were in the Bull Arm lunchroom, where they’d just finished their tuna sandwiches and green salads at their usual table, when they spotted Clar. Tracey held her phone up, surreptitiously snapping a picture of him in profile. Over the next few days, Craig texted the image to his brothers and sister. They shook their heads in disbelief. Craig’s older brother Clifford, the one who looked almost identical to Clar, eventually offered to do a DNA test to determine if Craig was really his kin.

When Tracey and Craig approached Clar to tell him about their suspicion, he found the whole thing outrageous. Sure, his mind  wandered briefly: Holy geez, Craig does look a lot like my brother. And he remembered some odd encounters he’d had over the years. There was the time in a toy store with his young daughter when he heard a woman say, “Cliff! Oh Cliff!” After repeated calls, to which he hadn’t responded, the woman approached him. “Oh,” she said, surprised when he shyly explained that his name was Clarence Hynes. “I thought you were Cliff Avery from Hillview.” He didn’t know who that was. On another occasion, a man waved from across the room during a job orientation. Politely, Clar waved back, though he didn’t recognize the man. Later the man came up and thumped him on the back. “I thought you were Clifford,” he said when he saw the bewildered look on Clar’s face. “You look a lot like my next door neighbor that I grew up with.”

Still, when the Averys told him their theory, Clar dismissed the possibility that he wasn’t the person he’d always been. Everyone looks like someone. He’d often been told that he looked like the cousins on his mother’s side. More important, he believed it.

At work, word spread fast. When people came to sign out tools from Craig’s counter, they wanted to talk about the possibility that he and Clar had been raised in the wrong homes. “Do you think it’s true?” they would ask. Craig showed them photos of his family members, who looked nothing like him and so much like Clar. Some Bull Arm employees who knew Clar from his childhood in St. Bernard’s were unequivocal: “I knew it, I knew it.” He’d never been like the other Hyneses.

For his own health and that of his kids, Clar had to be sure: Was he a Hynes or an Avery?

Tracey showed Clar photos of Craig’s siblings, but he barely looked at them. He didn’t want to see himself in their faces. He was starting to feel needled, and he bristled when people brought up the matter. At Bull Arm, he began to avoid the Averys. On the bus they all took together, he could feel their eyes on him. A DNA test was out of the question. “I’d just sooner not know,” he snipped after Craig mentioned the idea to him.

Craig got the email with the results comparing his DNA with Clifford’s in the late fall of 2015. He was too nervous to click on the message himself, so Tracey did it as they sat next to each other on the sofa, in their home just up the hill from where Craig was raised. A cascade of numbers filled the screen. Not only did he and Clifford not share the same father, but they weren’t even distantly related.

The first person Craig called was Clar. Even as he felt a wave of sadness, Clar wasn’t convinced that the news applied to him. “I guess I’m going to have to have it done, too,” he told Craig, though he still had no plans to be tested.

That winter, Clifford started calling Clar. He said he wanted to meet, but Clar always had an excuse. One day that spring, Clifford’s wife, Marilyn, found her husband down the lane behind their home, next to a gun and an empty shell casing. He’d taken his own life after quietly suffering from depression for several years, following the death of his eight-year-old son. Marilyn said the revelation about Craig not being his biological brother had also weighed on him, and that he couldn’t understand why Clar wouldn’t meet him.

All of Hillview turned out for Clifford’s funeral, but Clar, the rumored new brother, was noticeably absent. At work, Craig handed him the obituary, and Clar politely accepted it, but he couldn’t bring himself to read it. It has nothing to do with me, he told himself again.

After a few months, Clar thought that the matter had subsided, but then it all boomeranged back, as trauma is bound to. He and Cheryl still lived in St. John’s, but toward the end of 2016, he was renting a home in Hillview, because it was closer to Bull Arm—he wanted to avoid the treacherous daily commute through ice and snow, and the moose that wandered onto the highway after dark. When Craig’s sister Lorraine got wind that Clar was living nearby, she couldn’t contain her curiosity. After supper one night, Lorraine, her brother Wayne, and his wife, Pam, went to Clar’s rental and spotted him through the window, leaning into his fridge. “Oh my God. Oh my God,” Lorraine said, her legs going weak. The trio knocked on the door, and when Clar opened it, tears slid down Lorraine’s face. His eyes, she thought—they’re just like Mom’s.

Clar invited them inside. As far as Lorraine was concerned, he didn’t need to do a DNA test. He was the spitting image of Clifford. It was as if her brother were still alive.

They all stood in the kitchen sipping bottles of beer, and Clar noticed things about Lorraine that seemed like reflections of himself—her dark complexion, a chatty warmth that put others at ease. Then there was Wayne, leaning with one elbow on the forest-green countertop as he took swigs of beer. Clar had positioned himself the same way. It was like they were mimicking each other.

The truth seeped in slowly. It spread like a shadow that eventually enveloped him. In the weeks after Lorraine and Wayne’s visit, Clar began to feel uneasy in Hillview, and he took to driving home to St. John’s again every night. He would try to get a few hours of sleep next to Cheryl, with their dog, Lulu, at the end of the bed, but he was restless. For the first time in his life, he didn’t want to go to work. Unshoveled snow piled up in his driveway. He was usually energetic, someone who got things done before anyone else noticed they needed doing. Now he couldn’t function. He was like a bird caught in a crosswind. Clar moved from his bed to the chesterfield, the chesterfield to the bed, sometimes stopping to sob at the kitchen counter.

“I gotta get away from here,” he told Cheryl. “You’d be better off without me.”

Fearing the worst, Cheryl hid the car keys each night after supper, tucking them into a black plastic box high in the bedroom closet, where she also stashed all the medication in the house. Some nights, when he couldn’t sleep, Clar stayed with his younger brother Chesley, talking and crying with his head in his hands until dawn. Chesley had never seen Clar, 17 years his senior, in such a fragile state. Clar had always been a father figure, especially after their dad died when Chesley was still a teenager. Clar had taught him to drive in his Camaro, and to play hockey, basketball, and softball. To see the man he considered his rock careen off a cliff shook Chesley to his core. Each time Clar texted or called, Chesley breathed a sigh of relief: He’s still with us, he thought.

It took more than a year for Clar to surface from the abyss. He’d been unemployed, and his family was feeling the financial strain. His wife and sisters finally convinced him to see a doctor, and he was diagnosed with clinical depression. Once he was on the right medication, he slowly returned to his old self. That was when he decided it was time. He knew that mental illness ran in the Avery family, that Clifford had suffered from it. For his own health and that of his kids, Clar had to be sure: Was he a Hynes or an Avery?

When the test came back, in the winter of 2019, he called Craig, who was driving home from a hockey game. Clar had laid out his results on the kitchen counter next to Clifford’s, which Craig had shared with him. “Everything was a match,” Clar said. He and Clifford had been brothers. 

There was silence on both ends of the phone. Finally, Craig spoke: “We know now that it’s all real.”

What they didn’t know was that the story of the wrongs done at Come By Chance hospital was just beginning.

From left: The Avery family’s home in Hillview; Craig Avery.

THREE

The news of two men switched at birth reverberated up and down the Newfoundland coastline, eventually catching the attention of the local public broadcaster. A national audience was introduced to it in December 2019. The day the CBC released its report, Tracey Avery got a message from a woman who wanted to tell her a story. It was about a young couple who nearly lost one of their children in a mix-up at Come By Chance Cottage Hospital.

In August 1962, four months before Clar and Craig were born, Muriel and Cecil Stringer traveled home by taxi from the hospital with their infant son, Kent. In the back seat, Muriel’s mom, Lillian, held the baby boy, who was dressed in a blue knit sweater and bonnet. At one point, when the taxi pulled over and Cecil got out to buy a couple of bottles of Coca-Cola, Muriel, 19, peered at her son.

“Mom, that don’t look like my baby,” she said. The infant seemed smaller, with a pointier nose than she remembered. “Oh, it’s the clothes he got on,” Lillian replied.

On they drove, sipping Coke, down a bumpy road stretching into Trinity Bay, until they arrived at the young couple’s bungalow. Muriel and her mother gasped as they undressed the baby on the daybed—his armband didn’t say “Stringer.”

Cecil strode to the post office, which had the only telephone in town, and called the hospital. “How come the mother didn’t know her own child?” asked the nurse on the line. Cecil held his tongue; he knew the mix-up wasn’t Muriel’s fault. A nurse’s aide had handed the dressed baby to Lillian. All he cared to know was where his baby was.

At the hospital, 19-year-old Daphne Adams, lying in her cot in the women’s ward, heard a commotion down the hall. Her ears perked at the sound of her child’s name.

“What’s going on with my baby?” she asked the nurse on duty.

“It’s nothing,” the nurse told her.

Daphne pressed: “I heard you talking about my baby. What’s wrong with him?”

When she learned that her son was in Trinity Bay with another family, first she cried. Then she couldn’t sit still. The other women in the ward tried to console her, but a tide of anxiety pulled her to the front door, where she paced frantically, waiting. It was nearly dark when Cecil arrived and exchanged bundles with the nurse who met him on the steps.

Muriel and Daphne were in their late seventies when the news about Clar and Craig broke, but the memory of what had happened to them was still painful. For Muriel, there had been a second near miss. In October 1963, she returned to Come By Chance to give birth again. As she stood at the window of the nursery, gazing at her new baby girl, Norma, she noticed that the infant wasn’t wearing an identity band. She called out to a nurse, who discovered that, indeed, the band had gone missing.

“Well, get it back on her,” Muriel scolded. “’Cause that happened last year to me, and I don’t want it to happen again.”

“Oh,” the nurse replied, “was that you?”

The stories kept coming. It was like Clar and Craig’s revelation had opened the floodgates.

Tracey was flabbergasted to learn about Muriel’s and Daphne’s experience. It was the first of several shocks. The day after the CBC aired its story about her husband, Tracey was perusing the racks at Reitmans, a clothing store, for a new Christmas outfit when an acquaintance she hadn’t seen in years approached her. “I saw it on the news about Craig,” the woman said. She too had a story.

In 1968, her mother-in-law was discharged from Come By Chance Cottage Hospital with a baby boy. Once home, the woman and her family realized that they had the wrong baby. They had to take the child back to the hospital in the middle of a raging snowstorm to reclaim their own. (The family did not respond to questions for this story; the account of their experience is based on Tracey’s memory of the conversation at Reitmans.)

The stories kept coming. It was like Clar and Craig’s revelation had opened the floodgates. A week or two later, the Averys were at church in Hillview, sitting in a wooden pew waiting for the minister to start the service. As they chatted with other congregants about Craig and Clar being switched at birth, an older woman named Ivy Price piped up.

In 1966, Ivy gave birth at Come By Chance Cottage Hospital in the middle of the night. The next morning a nurse’s aide brought the baby to her in the women’s ward. The infant was swaddled, with only her tiny face poking out of the blanket. Ivy took one look and knew. “It’s not my baby,” she said.

“What do you mean?” she recalled the nurse’s aide asking. “How do you know?”

“It’s not my baby,” Ivy insisted. 

They went back and forth arguing until the aide finally returned to the nursery. She came back with another infant—the right one. According to Ivy, the woman said the baby’s name tag must have come off. “I was one of the lucky ones,” Ivy told me recently. 

There were other incidents, including one in Craig’s own family that happened in 1950, earlier than the others. His great-aunt Dorothy had a baby boy, Walter, in Come By Chance. As she lay on her cot, she heard the sound of her baby’s cries across the ward. He was in another woman’s arms. “That’s my baby you got there,” Dorothy said, according to her son Larry. When she asked a nurse to look into it, sure enough, Walter had been given to the wrong mother. It was pure luck that she heard him cry, and mother’s intuition that she recognized the sound. “If she had’ve been out of the room, off the ward, it could’ve been a different outcome,” Larry said.

Then there was the case Craig heard about through the Newfoundland grapevine, which he was finally able to confirm when he was making calls for a candidate running in a provincial election. His call list happened to include a man whose name he recognized, in a place called Hatchet Cove. When Craig phoned, after giving his spiel about the forthcoming vote, he asked if there had been a baby mix-up in the man’s family. Sure enough, the man said that in the late 1950s or early 1960s—he wasn’t sure when exactly—his aunt and uncle brought the wrong baby home from Come By Chance. Once they realized what had happened, they drove back to the hospital to retrieve their child.

One mistake is an accident; several is a pattern. “What was going on at that hospital?” Craig said. “Was it done accidentally or was it done on purpose?”

Digging for answers led the Averys and the Hyneses to a nurse with an odd nickname. “When have you ever heard of an angel of mercy being referred to as Tiger?” asked Edward Lake, the author of a book about cottage hospitals. It was this woman, Nurse Tiger, on whose watch most of the known baby mix-ups in Come By Chance took place.

The town of Come By Chance.

FOUR

In the early 20th century, recruitment of nurses from outside Newfoundland was organized first by a Christian organization, and later by a women’s knitting circle that sold their goods to raise hiring money. Most of the nurses were young women from the United Kingdom, and they took the job because they wanted an adventure, a chance to travel overseas before settling down. Many were surprised by Newfoundland’s rugged emptiness, locals’ sometimes incomprehensible brogue, and their unorthodox duties, which included treating pets along with their owners. Few nurses stayed on in Newfoundland, unless they married a local man. The rest went back across the pond after serving a two- or three-year term.

Christina Anne Callanan was different. She was born in the Irish city of Galway in 1924. She trained to be a nurse and, at age 19, moved to Canada for work. In her thirties, she relocated to Newfoundland. She arrived at the lonely train station in Come By Chance in or around 1955. Come By Chance wasn’t as far-flung as some communities in Newfoundland, with daily train service to St. John’s, but it could barely be called a town. Only 150 or so people lived there. Besides the bustling cottage hospital, Come By Chance had one road, a post office, and a general store.

Callanan was a sophisticated newcomer by local standards. She had a posh accent, albeit with a faint lisp from a cleft-palate repair above the left side of her mouth. She always looked immaculate—“like a stick of chewing gum,” as they say in Newfoundland—with gleaming shoes, crimson lips, and a crisp white uniform.

Some staff who worked alongside Callanan are still alive. There are those too old to recollect anything clearly, and some who won’t talk because they’re worried about being blamed for babies who were switched at birth, or because they don’t want to say anything that might be construed as negative. Others, though, spoke candidly with me about the woman they knew.

Callanan was brisk and competent, the first to emerge from her quarters on the second floor of the Come By Chance hospital each morning, and the first to scrub up for surgery. It wasn’t long before she rose to the position of head nurse, which, in addition to delivering babies and assisting in the operating room, required managing the office, distributing prescriptions, and supervising staff. Some colleagues described her as like a big sister who took them under her wing, teaching them how to deliver a placenta and asking that they drive her to social gatherings. Upstairs in the staff’s common area, Callanan was often found after hours with her feet up, nursing a drink.

But other colleagues found Callanan to be difficult, a trait some of them learned to soften by complimenting her on her short dark hair or pristine uniform. Her underlings called her Nurse Tiger behind her back, for her fiery, domineering ways. Some described her as like an army sergeant who put everyone on edge. She was known for pillorying the young nurses and their aides. “Where’s your hat?” she would roar across the room to a young woman who’d forgotten it that day.

The cottage hospital system had strict professional protocols, but the isolation of many of its outposts and the responsibility of serving multiple communities at once meant that they were often swamped. There were never enough hands to deal with the waves of emergencies—the car-accident victims bleeding out as they were carried up the front steps, the sick islanders moaning in the wards. At times in Come By Chance, when the nursing staff were run off their feet, kitchen workers or X-ray techs stepped in to help. At another cottage hospital, according to Edward Lake, a man hired as a janitor pulled teeth, set broken bones, and helped deliver babies.

Christina Callanan

In Come By Chance, there were babies galore. The nursery was often packed wall-to-wall with squinch-faced newborns. When all the bassinets were full, babies were deposited in red and white Carnation milk crates. There was always a surplus of these; canned milk was, and still is, a staple in Newfoundland, served with coffee and tea. Back then Carnation was what many people fed their babies—it was said to prevent rickets.

Nurse’s aides, who were as young as 16 and didn’t have medical training, were overworked, with little to no time off. They were often the ones who looked after the babies at night while the mothers slept in the wards. They warmed bottles of milk, scooped up crying infants to console them, and changed soiled diapers.

The bassinets and milk crates were supposed to be labeled. Aides and other staff were warned: Make sure the name on the label matches the baby’s armband, and make sure both match what’s on the mother’s hospital bracelet. But sometimes armbands slipped off after the swelling in the babies’ limbs—a common occurrence after birth—went down. If a nurse or an aide was in a rush, a baby could easily be placed in the wrong bassinet or crate. A mother might even make that mistake. “Some people couldn’t read in those days,” said Marie Parsons, a former cottage hospital nurse. “It was impossible to watch people all the time. It was so, so busy.”

By all accounts, Callanan ran a tight ship, but after one particular birth, according to Lake, something changed. She was having a difficult time delivering the placenta, the last stage of the process. She might have been kneading the woman’s uterus and asking her to push, growing increasingly worried as the afterbirth failed to appear, when a nurse’s aide got in her way. The aide was trying to put the correct identity band on the baby—protocol dictated that both the infant’s and the mother’s bands be attached immediately following birth, in the delivery room. But Callanan became annoyed and sent the aide out of the room. “Do that outside,” she said. “It needn’t be done here. Do that in the next room or out on the ward.”

From that point on, protocol was relaxed. Identity bands could be attached to mother and baby after they’d been separated, once the infant was in the nursery with the other newborns. “That was a recipe for disaster,” Lake told me. “It’s easy to make mistakes, and back then you’re talking about nurse’s aides who weren’t highly educated and didn’t have the training to recognize the dangers of certain things.

“Callanan may have been a capable midwife,” Lake continued, “but her overbearing style of supervision made her an incompetent nurse.”

Callanan was in charge in December 1962, when Craig and Clar were born. She delivered both babies, and it’s her name, signed with tight, curlicued C’s, atop the medical records of the births. Mildred Avery’s paperwork contains a discrepancy—it notes twice that she was discharged with Craig on December 8, but a third notation says she went home on December 10. A person can’t be discharged twice. The error could mean nothing, but perhaps it points to the kind of organizational disarray that allowed babies to go home with the wrong parents. December 10 was the day records show that Rita Hynes went home with Clar. Was it possible that the correct last name was still attached to Clar, on an armband or a milk crate, so that when he went home with Rita on December 10, it was recorded that the Avery baby had been discharged? 

When Lake looked at the medical records, he was taken aback at the brief amount of time each mother spent in the hospital. Back then women usually stayed several days, even up to a week, to recuperate from giving birth, but the records show Mildred may have gone home as home as early as the day her son was born. Rita was discharged two days after delivery. “It was inconsistent with the times,” Lake said. “It makes me wonder what in the hell the staff were doing there.” It appeared to Lake as if the hospital was so busy that new mothers were treated as if they were on “an assembly line.”

In August 1962, according to Cecil Stringer, it was Callanan who answered the phone when he called to report that he and Muriel had just brought home a baby who wasn’t theirs. The nurse’s harsh words still trouble him when he thinks of them today: How come the mother didn’t know her own child? They might be a clue to understanding what happened in Come By Chance. Perhaps Callanan would blame anyone but herself, including mothers recovering from childbirth, for blunders made by hospital staff. Mistakes happen, of course; no one is immune from making them. But there is acute danger in thinking you’re infallible.

There was also the problem of oversight—or lack of it. A director of nursing employed by Newfoundland’s department of health made semiannual or annual visits to the cottage hospitals, but Lake believes the appointments should have been more frequent. Perhaps, too, mistakes should have led to consequences for those who made them. “They all knew about Tiger and her reputation,” Lake said, referring to the various directors of nursing. “They were primarily to blame for any errors or ill treatment in that cottage hospital. By not taking any decisive action, they condoned Tiger’s approach as head nurse.”

Callanan worked at Come By Chance Cottage Hospital for about a decade. By 1964, a few years before she left, complaints about her had already piled up at the department of health, according to Lake. Some of them came from nurse’s aides who described her as overbearing. The staff who lived in the hospital found that there was no separation between work and home life: They felt bullied by day and knew they’d face punishment if they stepped out of line after hours—missing curfew, for instance—since Callanan ruled the nurses’ quarters just as she did the wards.

Callanan eventually moved to St. John’s. She found a job at a children’s hospital but left after a few years because, according to her former boss, she didn’t want to work night shifts anymore. She later became the head nurse at one of Newfoundland’s most remote cottage hospitals, located in the windswept town of Channel–Port aux Basques. She stayed there for two decades. Colleagues from Channel–Port aux Basques whom I spoke to said Callanan was never careless—quite the opposite. Once, in 1971, her insistence against a doctor’s orders that a baby be treated at a larger hospital saved his life. The baby’s mother, Jane Allen, said that her infant son was slowly starving due to a twist in his intestines. “If she hadn’t been so concerned about him, he would not have made it,” Allen told me. “She was a kinda by the book nurse, but very compassionate at the same time.”

As Lake writes in his book, the cottage hospitals “were only as good as the attitudes of the doctors and nurses who formed their cores.” Callanan certainly wasn’t the only nurse to commit errors, and Come By Chance wasn’t the only hospital where mix-ups happened. Former nurse Marie Parsons told me that she gave the wrong baby to a mother once, an error that was quickly rectified. Lisa Brown, who worked in medical records at the Channel–Port aux Basques Cottage Hospital, was herself switched at birth, albeit briefly, in 1955. The morning after she was born, the nurses brought the newest infants into the ward and handed them off to their mothers. Baby Lisa was given to the wrong woman, who quickly spoke up.

“My dear,” she said to the nurse, “you gave me the wrong baby. This little baby looks so much like John Farrell.” She was referring to Lisa’s father, an acquaintance. 

Such an encounter could only happen in a place like Newfoundland, where your neighbors and the wider community, precisely because it’s never that wide, are often intimately familiar; where it’s possible to look at someone and know who their kin are. What led the woman holding Lisa to realize that she had the wrong baby—the recognition of one person’s face in another’s—is what piqued Tracey and Craig Avery’s curiosity about Clar Hynes.

At Come By Change Cottage Hospital, however, that same intimacy seems to have been treated as something it never could be: a fail-safe. 

From left: Rita and Ches Hynes; Mildred and Donald Avery.

FIVE

Newfoundland’s baby mix-ups bespeak a time and a place—they happened in an era when people from the outports were glad to have access to medical care at all, when newborns were stashed in milk crates, when untrained staff were put in charge of important tasks, when identification processes for newborns could be slipshod. But none of these bygone circumstances minimize the harm that still ramifies today.

Together, Clar and Craig and their families decided to sue the Newfoundland government for the cottage hospital’s negligence—for failing to ensure accurate identification of newborns, and for discharging babies with the wrong parents—and the irreparable damage done by it. They believe the department of health should have intervened, investigated mistakes made by and complaints lodged against Callanan, and set more stringent birth-management policies. If action had been taken after the Stringers were given the wrong baby a few short months before Clar and Craig were born, maybe they would have gone to the right homes. “There was a problem there,” Craig said, “and they didn’t fix it.”

The stress, the strain, the psychological toll has been tremendous, said the men’s lawyer, Bob Buckingham. “Something like this, you don’t expect it’s going to happen. It uproots your psyche. It’s not like being involved in a car accident where you have a broken leg or a broken limb or even a head trauma,” he explained. “This just takes your whole being and says to you: ‘This is not who I am, and who I am is over here.’” Technically, a 30-year statute of limitations applies to the case, but Buckingham believes that because Craig and Clar had no way of knowing the switch had occurred, an exception should be made. (He hopes the case may compel the government to change the law.)

The Averys and Hyneses are also pushing for a public inquiry—an official review of how the switch happened, and of the possibility that there are more cases to investigate. There were 18 other cottage hospitals in the province; the last one closed in 1994. When I reached out to the government agencies in charge of health care and justice on the island, both offered a boilerplate response: The issue is before the courts, so we cannot comment.

As they wait for the legal case to proceed, the Hyneses and the Averys are coming to grips with what happened. Clar’s youngest sister, Dorothy, has had perhaps the most difficult time of it. “Screw them,” she told Clar when she first learned that the Averys wanted him to get a DNA test. “Let them live however they want to live.” When Clar called with his results, she bawled for days and struggled to breathe through panic attacks, the first of her life. Big brother Clar had been the pillar of the family since their parents died. When Dorothy got married, Clar walked her down the aisle. “Find a man like Uncle Clar,” she would always tell her daughters. Now it felt like she was losing him.

In the summer of 2019, Craig came to visit St. Bernard’s for the first time. He drove up the steep, rocky driveway to the taupe bungalow where his birth parents, long dead, had lived most of their lives. Bottles of beer clinked in the cooler in the back, next to the tray of pistachio-pudding tarts Tracey prepared for the occasion. A gaggle of Craig’s genetic siblings stood waiting in the dooryard. His stomach was in knots.

Dorothy wasn’t ready to meet her new brother—not yet. She hid in a camper parked near the house, where she could get a look at Craig through the window. There he was, a broad-shouldered man who stood like her dad and had her mother’s hearty laugh. She forced herself out the camper door and walked toward him, tears streaming. Craig swept her into a tight hug.

Craig stood outside for an hour and a half in drizzling rain before he could bring himself to step inside the bungalow, the scene of his stolen childhood. At the kitchen counter, he numbly cracked lobster claws with Clar, conscious that all this—the view, the people, the walls—should have been home. Over plates piled high with lobster, fried cod, and scallops, the Hynes siblings took in their new brother’s mustached grin, how he palmed his fork like their father had, how he too walked with a slight hunch, heaving himself from side to side. It was like he just fit. 

Oh there you are, thought Dorothy, her hard shell melting—you’re the one we’ve been waiting for.

“It’s just a cruel, cruel, cruel thing,” Dorothy told me. “How did it fall through the cracks so bad? I would never trade Clar for anything, but how did this happen?”

Craig and Clar have become like brothers, but their bond is something altogether different. They spend time together, and with their various siblings, on snowmobile excursions punctuated by boil-ups—an afternoon snack of tea, chili, toasted bread, and hot dogs roasted over a crackling fire. On weekends they stay at Craig’s getaway cabin or park their camper-vans in St. Bernard’s, in a spot where they can watch the sun set from lawn chairs, eating freshly steamed mussels strewn on a flat rock. They find comfort in the tics and mannerisms of cherished family members that they see in each other. Craig reminds Clar of his father—the way he taps one arm with two fingers on the opposite hand, the way he sits when he eats, hunched over with his knees apart. “You would swear it was my old man eating there instead of Craig,” Clar said. “It’s unbelievable.” For Craig, looking at Clar’s eyes is like looking at Clifford’s or his mother’s.

Carol, one of Clifford’s three daughters, has been getting to know Clar, too. She recently dropped off a Christmas card and an invitation to her wedding at his home. It’s a way to feel close to her father. “It’s like he’s here, even though I know it’s a different person. I feel that’s what has been helping me get through everything, just looking at him and being reminded of Dad,” Carol said. “I want to get to know him more because of how much Dad wanted to meet him.”

The unknowns are as vast as the blue-black Atlantic, and if Craig and Clar aren’t careful, they can be just as menacing. The men try not to indulge too much in the what-ifs and if-onlys, lest they find themselves seized by an emotional riptide. It’s been hard lately. With declining oil prices, Newfoundland’s fossil fuel industry cratered, and Craig was laid off at work. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the province into lockdown, made matters worse. Craig has struggled to fill his days and keep his mind from wandering. He used to be more easygoing, but now he’s quick to anger. “It’s just hard trying to deal with it all the time, trying to keep going,” he told me. “How do you get back all these years? How do you get back all that you missed? You’ll never get it back. You’ll never have the brother-sister connection that you would’ve had growing up. You’ll be good friends, but you’ll never have the brother-sister connection.” 

For his part, Clar keeps inordinately busy. When he’s not at work, he’s been building a new garage, installing gyprock walls at his daughters’ rental properties, and constructing a cabin in St. Bernard’s. The tasks help keep his emotions at bay, especially the regret about the family he never met.

All the parents—Rita and Ches, Mildred and Donald—are gone now, a sad fact that nonetheless means that the families don’t have to navigate an extra layer of emotional turmoil. Clar said he wouldn’t have got the DNA test if his parents were still alive. For them to learn that they’d lost another child would have been too much. His sister, Gladys, who lives in their childhood home overlooking the harbor in St. Bernard’s, still cries every day. “My parents don’t know none of this and they never will,” she said, breaking down. It would have killed them, she added, to learn that their baby was whisked away to another bay, and that they knew nothing about how he was raised.

Mildred was the last parent to die, about a month after Tracey first realized Craig and Clar had the same birthday. She was in a nursing home, beset by dementia. Even if she’d heard the truth, Mildred wouldn’t have understood. 

Clar watched a video of his birth mother for the first time in February 2020. “Come on over and see this,” Cheryl called out to him one day. Sitting in their living room looking at Cheryl’s phone, they watched footage of Mildred dancing with Craig in the nursing home, stepping side to side, Mildred dressed in a red cotton Christmas sweater. As Clar took in her short gray curls, the eyes like shiny river stones, the long nose that was also his own, he shook his head in awe.

This was the woman in whose body he grew, who labored to give him life, who surely loved him at first sight. This was the closest to her that he could ever be.

From top: the quay in St. Bernard’s; Craig Avery in Hillview’s cemetery.

SIX

I hoped to find Callanan—Nurse Tiger—to ask her how such a grievous error was made on her watch, but she died long ago. I learned that when the cottage hospital in Channel–Port aux Basques became part of a larger health care center, Callanan struggled to adapt. “She found it very stressful,” said Sandra Moss, a fellow nurse. “When things didn’t go her way she couldn’t accept it. She had a bit of this streak: ‘I’m the nurse in charge and this is how it is.’ And sometimes you need to be a little bit more flexible than that.” Ultimately, according to a former colleague, Callanan retired about a year before she’d intended.

It was difficult to find anyone who knew her well. Most of her relationships seemed to be peripheral ones, made at work, but she did keep at least one close connection for many years—a former patient who helped her find a place to live in Hantsport, Nova Scotia, when she retired. She knew no one there, and no one knew her.

She was found dead in her home one spring day in 1993. Callanan was 68. News of her passing drifted back to Newfoundland, to the people she used to work with at the cottage hospitals, but no one I spoke to attended her funeral at a Catholic church. Today, her granite headstone stands on a Canadian riverbank, amid those of strangers and their families, an ocean away from whatever kin she had left.

I heard stories about Callanan that made my heart ache. She was known as a loner in Channel–Port aux Basques. One year, a group of hospital staff went out one Tipsy Eve—a Newfoundland tradition, akin to a pub crawl, that involves going house to house on December 23—and visited Callanan’s small apartment last, on a whim. She came to the door, overjoyed to see people, and pulled a turkey out of the oven. How many years had she carved up a bird on her own?

It’s hard not to compare that story with another one. In 2020, Wayne Avery was diagnosed with kidney cancer and had to undergo surgery. A subsequent stroke left him partially paralyzed, living in the hospital and relearning to walk at the age of 66. As newfound blood brothers, Clar and Wayne had grown close over the previous few years, and Clar became a constant in Wayne’s time of need, texting him, visiting him, and delivering meals of homemade soup and fish and chips. On New Year’s Day 2021, before Clar sat down to eat with Cheryl and the wider Hynes clan, he carried two plates of foil-wrapped turkey dinner to the hospital for Wayne and his wife.

Clar wasn’t the only one who pitched in. Craig and Tracey whipped up comfort food: Jiggs dinner, just the way Mildred used to make it—minus the peas pudding—with Wayne’s favorite meat, roast turr with gravy. A few days before Wayne finally returned to his home in Hillview, there was a family tragedy: Clyde, another of the Avery brothers, died suddenly. Clar and Cheryl drove over from St. John’s and stayed with Craig and Tracey for the funeral. They mourned Clyde as Clar’s sibling, sharing in their grief with people they once hardly knew.

Nothing can undo or excuse that terrible mistake made in Come By Chance, but before there was any knowledge of wrong families, there were loving ones. Now there’s something else: an unlikely unit of Hyneses and Averys, welded together by the cruelest of truths, and also by compassion and devotion. Is that better, at least, than having no family at all—no one to know that look in your eyes when you smile, to boost your spirits by making your favorite childhood meals, to miss you when you’re gone?

The truth was always out there, waiting to be discovered. Newfoundland’s proximity and familiarity were the tides that finally washed it ashore. It will reverberate through the years, through children and grandchildren and their heirs, who when asked, “What bay are you from?” will know that the answer isn’t simple.

The truth also leaves another question lingering, like a whisper on the wind: How many more are out there?

“I don’t think Craig and I were the only ones,” Clar said, referring to babies switched at birth whose families never knew, who still don’t know. When he’s home in St. Bernard’s, he looks at local families differently. When someone appears a little unlike the rest, he can’t help but wonder whether there’s a secret there, just beneath the surface.

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