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Sheila Ann Tilton's Story > Storyteller Feature

Featuring: Sheila Ann Tilton
Written by: Adara Bernstein

"A Road To and From Mumbai" 

Comments: 1 Published on: Apr 06, 2009 Views: 29,813

Category: Loss


Sheila brushed aside Rabul’s bangs, which had grown too long, and looked into his dark brown eyes. “You know I love you right? More than pumpkin pie with ice cream? More than the number of birds that fly south in the winter? More than the fig tree has leaves?”


“Yes, Mom…” the angst ridden teenager would sigh and pat his hair back into place, but a little smile would be playing upon his lips


“Be safe!” she’d call behind him as he’d leave, his thin body looking rickety against the wind.


Rabul was a good kid. Never gave his adopted mom many problems growing up. A few pranks here and there, pants too low, hair too long sort of thing, but never anything serious.


Sheila had adopted Rabul from India – “long before Angelina Jolie and Madonna made adopting third world babies popular,” she laughs. Her husband had worked for a telecom company and they had the foresight to tap into the burgeoning cell phone market in India. Steve and Sheila lived in Delhi and Bombay (now Mumbai) for almost ten years.


“The poverty there was – probably still is although I haven’t been back in years except once – unbearable. Children with diseases and missing limbs would sit in dirty rags on the side streets and beg all day long. They broke my heart. When we were getting ready to move back stateside, we decided to adopt.”


Sheila had been trying to get pregnant for some time, but the doctors weren’t hopeful. He gently suggested that she consider adopting. Being in India, however, she knew her chances of adopting a child back in the States - her homeland - were slim to non-existent. “It wasn’t until we were getting ready to leave that I realized how much I had grown to love India – her colors, her people. It truly was a second home to me. And remembering all those poor urchins begging day in and day out in the dirty water, it just felt right.”


They went to a local adoption center and didn’t tell them they were planning on moving back to the United States for fear it would hurt their chances. They adopted a young boy named Rabul, a tiny child whose parents had been felled from disease, who had melted their heart with his warm eyes and shy smile.


After adopting Rabul, they transplanted him back in the United States a year later. The transition was smooth and Rabul was growing stronger by the day, thriving in school and was an all around happy boy.


One day, when Rabul was fourteen, they received a letter from the orphanage that had adopted Rabul out. Apparently he had a sister, and she had come looking for her long lost brother. She had been taken care of by members of the family; it remained unclear how Rabul had ended up in the orphanage.


The one trip back that Sheila made was about fifteen years ago. Her husband Steve had been driving Rabul home from a dinner with a former work colleague when the unthinkable happened – a drunk driver hit the car and killed them both instantly. The driver of the other car walked away with barely a scratch, and had had five drunken driving arrests before. But this was in India, where a well connected citizen and a few Rupees can sometimes make police and law enforcement look the other way. The young man who killed them was from a wealthy family and never served a minute in jail for his crimes.


“We were supposed to meet his sister the next day. Rabul was so excited that he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. They went out to dinner with a friend of Steve’s from the company while I visited some other friends, and they were both killed on their way back to the hotel. That day was the blackest day of my life.”


Sheila had to meet the long-lost sister, Srilana, alone the following day and give her the devastating news. The young woman broke down into sobs and began wailing and tearing her hair out in the middle of the plaza. Sheila tried to comfort her, but she was so in shock herself that the two strangers clung to each other in the middle of the busy shopping area and howled at the injustice that had been forced upon them – the loss of their son and brother and Sheila’s husband.


Rabul’s sister took Sheila into her family where “I curled up into a ball into the corner and cried for the next three months.” The family never pressured her to vacate their small house, treating her as family.


Eventually Sheila began to share stories of Rabul with the family and learned about her adopted son’s family and life in India. The more she learned the more she felt she had done the right thing by adopting him, but also felt a strange feeling seeping in – guilt. She had removed him from his homeland and his culture and immersed him in hers.


Sheila stayed at the house for four months. After her grieving subsided just ever so slightly, she felt that she had imposed on her guests long enough and had to face the dreaded tasks of returning to the United States and finish up her family’s affairs there.


“When I set foot off that plane, I felt as though the weight of the world rested on my shoulders. As though I had this, this black BEAST drooling on my back, sinking his fangs into my neck and laughing.”



“Sheila and her husband had adopted Rabul from India – ‘long before Angelina Jolie and Madonna made adopting third world babies popular,’ she laughs.”



Sheila stayed and sorted through her husband’s estate. She buried him and Rabul in a quiet cemetery not too far from their house, and visited regularly. Inviting Srilana and her family to help fill up the large house seemed like a good idea that came to her one night after sitting on her porch, afraid to go inside to the emptiness. “I called her the next day and asked if they could come for a visit.”


Srilana readily agreed, and they planned for a trip the following summer. Getting ready for her new friend, the sister of her deceased son, gave her a purpose. When the brood arrived, the house was suddenly filled with laughter and light again and as Srilana’s children ran and shrieked through the house, Sheila could detect


Sitting on the porch sharing their thoughts over tea, Srilana confessed to Sheila that life was hard in Bombay. Her husband’s business wasn’t doing very well and they had five children, four of them girls. She was worried about their dowries and growing up. Rocking back and forth on the swing, Sheila began thinking.


Sleeping on it, the next morning she awoke “with a smile on my face for the first time in over a year. I knew what I had to do.” Without telling anyone in the house, she was at her lawyer’s office first thing in the morning. After that, she stopped at the realtor and put her house up for sale. Stopping by the grocery store she brought home food for lunch and was greeted by a cacophony of noise and little limbs bursting around.


She pulled Srilana into the kitchen and told her the news. Protesting madly, Srilana was finally persuaded to let her adoptive aunt help her family. Sheila explained that she had gotten a very large life insurance policy settlement, and with the sale of the house, Srilana’s family could live like kings back in India.


Srilana called in her husband, who at first objected to such kindness, but eventually was made to understand the better life it would create for his children. Humbled by kindness, they stood before this woman, this American woman to whom they had only vague ties, and kissed each other in a mix of tears and gratitude.


Sheila did as she promised, and now travels the world visiting countries and donating money to foreign orphanages. Once a year she stops in India and spends some time with her “adopted” family together they honor the memory of their son and brother, Rabul, and Sheila's husband Steve, lost so many years ago.

Srilana's family (above) 'adopted' Sheila (below) after Rabul's death.

Thank you Sheila, for sharing your Story with us.


Our Stories and pictures are the sole copyright of their Authors and may not be reprinted or used without their permission.

© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ® 


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Member Since
Aug 2007
Brian Childers said:
posted on Apr 12, 2009
tethering worlds

Mumbai and back.... i'm really sorry to hear about your son and husband. It's interesting to learn about kids and orphanages in other countries. I especially hear bad stories about female babies in India (and other countries). That was really nice of you to help Rabu's family too.