Cause and Effect: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Is Preventable, Incurable, and Surprisingly Common
IT WAS ONE of those life-changing phone calls, only not the kind announcing you’ve won a lottery or been nominated for some big-deal award. The woman on the other end of the phone was a Children’s Aid worker in a community just north of Toronto. “Ms. Cunningham? I’m calling about your grandson, Andrew. Come and get him, or we’re taking him into care. Meet me at the hospital.”
I had the forty-five-minute drive to imagine what exactly had transpired. Andrew’s mom, my twenty-six-year-old stepdaughter, had been an alcoholic since her early teens, so I guessed booze was going to figure into the narrative in some way. Alas, I was right. Kira, nine months pregnant with child number five, had been found, again, WUI — wandering under the influence — accompanied by number four, Andrew, and the two of them had been scooped by the police. She was still very slurry by the time I got there, and far from capable of reining in sixteen-month-old Andrew, who was busily toddling around the emergency ward, grabbing anything solid to whack on the walls.
Getting home meant a fifteen-minute ferry ride to Toronto Island — long enough for a significant portion of my 600 or so neighbours to note the novelty of my having a tot in tow. My husband, who’d left for a month’s work in Banff literally days before, was among the last to get the news. “Guess who’s come to stay?” I blurted. “Boop.” (Boop, and even sillier variations, was our pet name for Andrew — the kind of nickname older kids loathe when it slips out in public.) Don was basically gobsmacked. When we had married two years before, in 1990, I had been forty, he fifty-four. Kira, his only child, was a runaway at fifteen, a mom at sixteen, and even, for a while, lived on the street in Communist Prague. Her two older children were being raised by their paternal grandparents in central Europe; another had been adopted at birth in Canada. Don’s heart had already been ripped out, and a second round of parenthood was as appealing as more vivisection.
There was another significant reason for Don’s dismay. Just before he left town, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He had postponed the tests to determine whether his disease was operable until after his return, but we both knew the odds: the five-year survival rate was less than 15 percent.