Pair to return favor at hospital in India

Date: 2003-03-23

Idaho Spokesman-Review (Coeur d'Alene, ID)
Column: CLOSE TO HOME
Author: Cynthia Taggart

RANI SUTLIFF KNOWS she can salvage a life, and she can't wait to try.

She wants to hold an abandoned infant close and let it feel her life. She wants to hand a struggling baby to the eager parents adopting it and savor the moment a loving family is born.

She wants to help the way strangers helped her after her biological mother relinquished her in Calcutta, India, 19 years ago. So Rani plans to head to India next year with her mother, Linda Sutliff, who also was adopted in India.

"I think it'd be neat if I can volunteer where somebody helped me,'' Rani says.

Mother and daughter want to help for three months at the International Mission of Hope hospital, where Rani was born and lived the first two months of her life. Then, Linda wants to show Rani the British orphanage and school in northern India where Linda and her brother Michael spent childhood.

"I've been looking to go back,'' Linda says. "I just need to go back.''

Linda left India in 1958 with her new Midwestern mother, and never returned. Linda believes her biological Indian mother either died during childbirth or was institutionalized. Her father was a British railroad engineer who worked for the British Broadcasting Corp.

He put Linda and Michael, 16 months older than his sister, in a British-run orphanage with 64 children. The orphanage catered to upscale merchants. Linda was raised on the King's English and manners at the foothills of the Himalayas. She wore uniforms but no shoes, and she lived in a cottage with one other girl. She saw Michael on Sundays.

Ida Hildibrand, a home economics specialist from Kansas, decided in the early 1950s to help the world situation by adopting children. Ida was single and well-intentioned but not really nurturing. She worked for the U.S. government sharing her home economics skills in India and East Pakistan.

Ida wanted two children and preferred a brother and sister. She met Linda and Michael in 1956 at their British orphanage. They were 12 and 13 and fit her plan. She took them out of school and dressed them in tailor-made brown corduroy outfits with shoes. They were shocked.

"We had never worn shoes,'' Linda says.

They also had walked everywhere. Ida traveled in a Land Rover. The car's motion sickened Linda.

Before taking off permanently with Ida, Linda and Michael spent Christmas with their father in Calcutta. They hardly knew him. He approved of their adoption because he wanted them well cared for.

"We all agreed we could part,'' Linda says.

Ida expected gratitude but Linda and Michael were rebellious young teens. They hated shoes. Linda cut up her clothes. They didn't understand a mother; they'd experienced house mothers and teachers. They attached themselves to Ida's servants.

"We felt like we were on display, and we got tired of it,'' Linda says.

Ida put them in Indian schools, but Linda and Michael spoke English. They'd studied Bengali and Hindi like American students study French and German. They lasted two weeks at the school, then Ida put them in an American boarding school.

"We learned slang, ate watermelon, heard radio, had hot dogs,'' Linda says.

They stayed a year and a half while Ida traveled. She took them to the United States via Japan and Hong Kong in 1958, but she continued to travel. Linda and Michael stayed with Ida's second cousins.

"It was hard for her (Ida). Our personalities were in place,'' Linda says. "We were kind of hellions. She always thought there was something wrong with us. We didn't fit in.''

Life with Ida took Linda and Michael to Kansas, San Francisco, Hawaii and Idaho for months at a time. Linda graduated high school in Montpelier, Idaho, worked with Ida on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, then started Idaho State University's nursing program.

She met Jerry Sutliff, a pharmacy student, at school. They eventually married and settled in the Inland Northwest in 1973. Linda worked as as critical care nurse at Valley Hospital. Jerry was a pharmacist at Modern Drug in Coeur d'Alene. They wanted children, but had no luck on their own. So they adopted in 1977.

Baby Erica's biological mother was an unmarried teenager who wanted a good home for her baby. Linda was determined to be her "Earth Mother.''

But, "I wasn't,'' she says. "I had no role model.''

Linda's skills evolved with Jerry's help. He was a natural father who had grown up with four sisters. By the time Erica was ready for preschool, Linda loved her role as mother. The Sutliffs decided to adopt another child.

In-country adoptions were taking years, so Linda and Jerry decided on international adoption. India was the only country they considered.

The Washington Association of Christian Adoptive Parents connected the Sutliffs with the International Mission of Hope in Calcutta. Linda requested a baby girl with no irreversible health problems. She wanted to name her Rani, which means queen.

Rani was born at the mission's hospital and needed a complete blood transfusion. She had intestinal parasites that took two months to overcome. Her mother signed release forms right after giving birth and left without sharing her name.

An off-duty flight attendant accompanied 2-month-old Rani in July 1983 from Calcutta to Seattle to meet her new family. Linda and Erica immediately took Rani into the airport bathroom, undressed her and studied their new treasure.

"She was a little brown stick, all hair,'' Linda says, chuckling. "She grew into the healthiest of all of us.''

Unlike Linda, Rani and Erica spent their childhoods in a close family that stayed in one place. Jerry died from coronary artery disease when Rani was 2. Linda raised her girls just north of Rathdrum. Rani learned about India from the movie "Gandhi.''

"Mom forgets she's gone everywhere, and I haven't,'' Rani says. She is attending North Idaho College this year. Erica is married with a new daughter, Serena.

Linda recently heard about organized trips to volunteer in India through a Seattle University student who's going this year. Linda wants to go and wants to take Rani with her. Rani is ready.

"I don't know what to expect, but it doesn't scare me at all,'' Rani says. People often assume she's from India by her looks and she worries the same may happen when she's in India. "I could be mistaken for knowing things I don't know.''

The Sutliffs need at least a year to arrange work schedules and raise money. Linda, now a recovery room nurse at Kootenai Medical Center, hopes to collect donations of medical supplies to take along. She wants to work in a hospital that restores hope for babies in hopeless situations.

Rani wants to see where her life began and help find promising futures for babies just like her.

"I always wanted to go to India when I was older,'' she says. "And I want to adopt when I have children.''

Caption:
Linda Sutliff and daughter Rani are both adoptees from India.

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