Crack House Diary: Goodbye Ten Cents and Cain

I emerged from the womb of a fourteen-year-old girl.  She had gotten into some trouble in the tiny Mormon community of Raymond, Alberta, where our ancestors had gone to practice polygamy outside the long reach of the US government.  The fourteen-year-old womb belonged to my aunt, a small-town beauty who for reasons she has never explained to me (but for which I long to know more, and to which I am quite sure I would be entirely sympathetic), she just couldn’t live a ‘normal’ Mormon life.  I’m only aware of her circumstances by second-hand accounts.  She slept around, maybe for cocaine (her bouts with drug abuse, and visits to rehab, would become family legends), maybe for money, and maybe out of pure youthful rebelliousness.  The details are sordid, the juicy bits of a complex situation filtered through a gossipy family living in a small, ultra-conservative Mormon town.  Her brothers and sisters, nine of them all together, knew my story before I did.  I would attend massive family reunions where I would walk and play among these people, never knowing that I was the family’s dirty secret.

Abortion was never an option, as far as I know.  When my aunt became pregnant, before the town could find out, my grandfather made arrangements to send her away to Israel to live with my uncle who was then laying down the groundwork to establish a branch of Brigham Young University, eventually to be known as The Jerusalem Center (for which my uncle, David Galbraith, a person of modest celebrity status in the vast Mormon leadership hierarchy, would later serve as the first president).  There in the Holy Land, far from the small-town gossip circles of Raymond, I gestated among the Jews.  That was the summer of 1973.

The choice for my aunt had already been made for her by her siblings and my grandparents.  She would give up her baby for adoption to her sister who was struggling to conceive naturally.  Everything would be kept in the family, including the secret of my paternity.  When winter came, and my birth was eminent, my aunt flew to New York.  I was conceived on the windswept prairies of Alberta, baked in Jerusalem, and on December 6, 1973, I was born in Manhattan.  That same day my birth mother handed me over to my aunt, who became my adoptive mother.  Though I would always know that I had been adopted, I would not learn about the details of this exchange for 19 years.

I have yet to meet an adopted person who struggles to accept the circumstances of his or her birth.  The lore of adoptive misgivings, of children feeling abandoned and betrayed, doesn’t make sense to most of us (at least to those of us who were lucky to be adopted as infants), though I have known plenty of future adopters who would distress over when and how to reveal this critical information to their children.  When asked what should be done, my answer is always the same — raise the child with the knowledge of the adoption.  It is a simple thing for a child to understand.  Some people are not prepared to be parents, and choose to give up a child for adoption so that the child might have a better life.  As long as the adopted child doesn’t feel mistreated or discriminated against by the adopting parents, the adoption will seem like a lucky break.  On the other hand, if the child were to discover the adoption by some less forthright avenue, the concealment of such an important fact might feel like a betrayal.

My aunt was one person who went on to adopt a child, and who sought my advice on when and how to tell her son the truth.  She came to Great Falls on a summer visit, and our two families decided to float the Missouri on homemade rafts.  She, on some inflatable contraption, paddled over to my lashed pontoons and slung her leg over part of my craft, linking us together.  She went on to tell me that she and her husband were trying to figure out when to tell their adopted son the truth, and that she wanted to know my opinion.  I told her, “I think you should tell him right away, while he is still very young.  I’ve known my whole life, and it has never bothered me.  Kids can understand that some people just aren’t ready to be parents, so they give up their children for adoption.  I think your son will accept that.  Since you love him, and don’t treat him differently than your other children, he will accept that.”  She listened to my advice, though her thick glasses magnified in her eyes an undercurrent of emotion that seemed ready to drag her to the bottom of the river.  “Thanks Rogan .  I really appreciate hearing that.”  Then she pushed off with her foot, launching us briefly in opposite directions, and paddled back to her husband and children.

I learned that my aunt had been my birth mother from my adoptive mother.  I was home from Brigham Young University, preparing to go on a religious mission to teach Mormonism to strangers, when my adoptive mother approached me in the family room.  It was time for her to unburden herself of this metaphysical weight.  She asked if I had not wondered, because she had sensed that I had.  She meandered around the point for a while, with the sound of her voice becoming more grave with each passing moment.  I had no idea what was about to happen.  Then she choked out the words through a crescendo of tears, “She was so young when she had you…  She was only fourteen… She was all wrapped up in some trouble… and there were men… and drugs… and…”  I put my arms around her and embraced her, because this is what she needed, but the drama of the moment was hers alone.  “Mom, I’m really glad that you and dad adopted me.  You have been great parents, and I love you both very much.”  Then she said to me, “Thanks son.  You will always be my first born son.”

Through the entire story of my adoption, I had sat in stony silence.  It wasn’t until she said those words, “You will always be my first born son,” that I felt anything more than intense curiosity about my own origin.  I believe I speak for many adopted people when I describe the sense of utter detachment in a moment like this.  Empathy can only take a person so far.  For we, the infant adopted, the upheaval of our coming into being, and the life-altering choice to bring us into your lives is not something we remember.  But in that moment, choking on her tears, when she declared her maternal love for me, I gained a conscious knowing of what my body had known ever since she first cradled me in her arms — this would be the only mother I would ever know.

Before departing on a mission, a Mormon will typically have a special church meeting held in his or her honor, called a ‘missionary farewell.’  The farewell is actually a normal Sunday service except the speakers, who are typically called from the church’s immediate congregation, will consist of the missionary’s friends and family with the missionary him or herself being the final speaker.  It is common for family members to travel some distance to attend a missionary farewell.  My aunt had driven the three hours from Raymond down to Great Falls to see me off.  As nervous as I was to speak and leave for the mission field, I also knew that she now knew that I knew that she had given birth to me, and that there would be an awkward conversation in which we would have to mutually acknowledge this.  The farewell was a success, and the frightening conversation came after church, in the same family room where my mother had first revealed to me the facts surrounding my birth.

When I write about conversations that happened so many years ago, I either remember specific phrases, and let them stand in with a bit of filler for entire conversations, or I remember the gist of a conversation well enough that I’ll take a stab at inventing dialogue that is a true enough reflection of what was said.  These conventions have their limitations, most significantly the abandonment of literal accuracy, but I have decided that it is better to get some version of the past down on the page before time can erode away any more of the details.  I don’t present a conversation as a literal recording of what was said, but rather as a true reflection of how the memory of a conversation has been internalized and made personally concrete.  I could obviously avoid dialogue all together, but I like it too much, so I muck around with it and take some creative liberties with the hope that interested parties might eventually add to, reflect on, or even vigorously reject my presentation of memory.  I’m reminded of a scene in Lost Highway, where Bill Pullman’s character explains to the police why he doesn’t own a video camera:

Ed: Do you own a video camera?
Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.
Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: What do you mean by that?
Fred Madison: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

I simply can not invent the dialogue that took place between my aunt and myself that day.  The gravity of the situation seems to outweigh in my mind the benefits of taking creative liberty, so instead I will paraphrase.  The conversation was brief.  She told me that she was glad that I knew, and that she was proud of the person who I had become.  She was grateful that she could live close enough to see me from time to time, and watch as I had grown and developed.  She told me that the choice to let me go was one of the hardest things she had ever done, and that she had been haunted by regret over that choice for most of her life, but that in seeing me at the podium, preparing to leave for my mission, she had new found confidence that she had made the right choice.  I told her that I was glad to know that she had given me life, and that knowing that someone so close to the family had been watching and caring about me was better than never knowing at all.  I told her that I loved her, and that I honored her difficult choice, and that I had never resented her giving me away.  The most notable point that I did not bring up was the question about who was my biological father.

Since that time I have learned a couple of things about my birth mother.  For one, I wasn’t her only ‘mistake.’  A couple of years after my birth she had a second child with a man who abandoned her mid-pregnancy.  She was still in her teens, but she was now determined to keep the child.  She sacrificed, and made it work.  She married a good man, very different than the people she had been running with all of the years before.  He stayed by her side through multiple journeys through rehab, and he helped raise her children.  I can’t help but wonder how giving up her first child colored her choice to later adopt.  Years later, when one of her younger daughters became pregnant as a teenager, my aunt guided her daughter to keep the child, even though doing so would make college education more difficult to pursue.  She told her daughter that she would help raise the baby, and would help her every step of the way so that she could keep her child.  It is difficult to see all of this and not read into it a deep sense of regret over a choice she was pushed to make at age fourteen.


Ok, it is almost 6am on the east coast, so some Whatsit readers could be waking up any moment now to find nothing new on the site.  This post is a followup about my dogs, and the choice I ultimately made to abandon them.  I’m cheating here by submitting the background of my own adoption as an emotional proxy for abandoning my puppies.  Quite frankly, in many ways the adoption is an easier topic.  Ten Cents and Cain came into my life unexpectedly, and I had hoped to accommodate them, but ultimately decided that our prior lifestyle was more important.  I regret that choice, and believe that I will probably feel guilty about it for the rest of my life.  I will now meet the minimum obligation I feel I defined for myself in the original dogs post by hiding behind a clinical list and my camera.  The following photos show Ten Cents and Cain playing rough.  It is in their breed’s nature to play rough, but I assure the viewers that these photos do not depict any harm.  These puppies love each other, and enjoy play fighting.  I can’t look through these photos without nearly bawling.

Reasons we took Ten Cents and Cain to the pound:

  • Ten Cents bit (nipped really) my mother, who swore she would never visit again so long as we had them.
  • Susan’s parents had already said they wouldn’t come as long as we had the dogs.
  • After two years of working with him, Cain would still pee every time he was shown any affection.
  • Cain’s uncontrollable bladder meant that he had to be an ‘outside dog.’
  • Cain would not allow Ten Cents to be an ‘inside dog’ while he was left outside.
  • Ten Cents was then required to be an ‘outside dog’ too
  • Ten Cents started to get really depressed about this.
  • The dogs were too big to travel with us.
  • The dogs were too expensive to put in a kennel.
  • We tried leaving the city with massive piles of dog food left for the dogs, which technically worked, but made the dogs depressed.
  • We couldn’t afford to feed the dogs good dog food.
  • Cheaper dog food resulted in extremely stinky dogs with skin problems.
  • We couldn’t afford Frontline tick and flea medicine.
  • Cheaper tick and flea products were not working.
  • Being lazy about cleaning up after your dogs catches up with you very quickly, and the yard would turn into a stinky dog toilet.
  • The dogs would bark at night and the neighbors would complain.
  • I suggested that we keep Ten Cents, but Susan said we needed to keep them both, or get rid of them both.
  • This remains a point of marital conflict, but we deal with it.

So that is the list.  We found ourselves unable to leave town, unable to receive guests, and unable to afford these massive dogs.  The responsibility became more than we could handle, and we realized that we were not ready to have our prior lives defined by these two animals.  So we traded the dogs for regrets, only now I wish we had chosen the dogs, or at a minimum, just Ten Cents.  I miss her so much.



























13 responses to “Crack House Diary: Goodbye Ten Cents and Cain”

  1. Dave says:

    Wow, Rogan. I don’t know what to say. Thank you. Those are beautiful dogs. I’m so sorry you had to give them up.

  2. Good morning Dave. Man, I wake up and read some of these posts I write with fresh morning eyes and I think, ‘Self, you are such a drama queen.’ And this is about all that can be said about that. Yes, they were beautiful dogs. Ten Cents was especially great.

  3. Hi Rogan, thanks for this post — I’m always interested in reading about people’s experiences with adoption. (Your parents adopting you occurs in about as different a context as I could imagine, to our experience.) I sometimes wonder, what will our daughter think about adoption when she is reflecting back on her childhood in future years. That scene with your mother sounds awkward and difficult.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    Damn. This was a touching post to read. I think you give perfect advice- tell the kids early on, because they are resilient. I especially liked the fourteenth picture of the white dog with his head cocked, as if to say- “For if you think I’m just a woofin’, just try me”. Keep ’em coming. Thanks.

  5. autumn says:

    My heart hurts; I can only imagine the weight of yours. I think that it must go up and down as time passes. Thanks for taking this on and sharing.

    Dogs, like infants, seem so impossibly vulnerable to the decisions of others. I like to think that Ten Cents and Cain have each found a good adoptive home. I think Ten Cents has as good a shot as any dog, she is so expressive!

  6. Jeremy says:

    I am also sort of fascinated with this topic (about which you write very eloquently, by the way, Rogan), particularly because my mother had two daughters whom she gave up for adoption before she had me (she was also a member of a strict religious family, though not a Mormon one). She told me about her daughters (my half-sisters) in a Red Lobster in Riverside, CA, when I was about 23. I remember having to go outside to process this information, sitting on a curb in the parking lot, weeping. Although this was nothing like finding out that I was adopted, the revelation was still so jarring, especially insofar as it revised my conception of my mother, that I have to agree with you, Rogan–knowing all along would have been much better… By the way, both daughters finally contacted my mother as they approached their respective 30th birthdays, the older one first, then the younger one. I wonder, Rogan, whether you ever felt the need to know and to contact your birth father, whether you would’ve wanted, on your own, to contact your birth mother, if your mother hadn’t told you who she was?

  7. 5. Thanks for the thought about Ten Cents, autumn. I means a lot to believe that she was adopted. She was such a sweet girl.

    6. Yes, Jeremy, I have been interested to learn about my birth father, if for no other reason to simply get a better picture of my genetic propensities. This kind of information is becoming increasingly useful. I approached my aunt a few years back about this and hit a wall. She panicked and terminated the email account that I had used to contact her. Then she communicated through a sister who contacted my mom and basically said that she wouldn’t talk about this. This really pissed me off, and seemed to be a supremely selfish thing to withhold, so I wrote her a letter that basically said that if she wasn’t going to cooperate, that I would head up to Raymond and start knocking doors. It really is that small of a town. She panicked more, and I backed off. I read into this that she definitely has something to hide, and I’m now assuming that whoever he is, she hadn’t let him know about me, thus the secret trip to Israel and the foreign birth certificate. But I really feel that it is my right to know this information, and I have been on the fence for a few years now on what to do about it.

  8. Scotty says:

    I like how the 15th photo makes a near-perfect Yin-Yang.

  9. Tim says:

    This post made me sympathize a great deal with your ultimate decision to give up the dogs. It really was an untenable situation. Even though it’s heart-breaking to think about the dogs’ absence, it was certainly the best resolution for you and your family. You were being held hostage, essentially, by the circumstances. Believe me, I would not have had an easy time of it deciding to give them up, but rationally I side with you completely.

  10. Natasha says:

    Rogan, pain is a funny thing; it seems to get worse at night. Most great writing has a sense of tragedy in it, and so does your adoption story: sad and fascinating, especially, the way you write it.

    I also think that you should have the right to know who your biological “father” is. It’s strange that your aunt would rather terminate her e-mail account than, at least, simply tell you why she doesn’t want to talk about it and be honest. But I think that by connecting your adoption story to the dogs, you are making yourself feel a lot worse. You didn’t abandon your dogs. You guys are great people, and, like you said, you didn’t buy them from a store and were not prepared to deal with everything that happened. You didn’t throw them out on the street, but took them to a place where people adopt dogs. Maybe they found a good and loving home and are alive and well someplace.

    Jeremy, did you ever find your biological parents?

  11. E&R's Papa says:

    I agree that it’s never too early to be open with kids about being adopted. Sometimes when our four year old daughters play house, one of them is the “birth mother.” Their current favorite movie is “Baby Mama,” about surrogacy. They are fascinated by all kinds of families and babies.

    But I have empathy for your mother wanting to stall on the details. I don’t know what I’ll do when R wants to know about her birth father — how and when do you tell someone that she showed up in a hospital aged 6 months with blood in her diaper from apparent abuse?

  12. lane says:

    such classic looking dogs. sad.

  13. Jeremy says:

    10: Natasha, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was adopted. I have two sisters that my mother gave up for adoption…