SCARBOROUGH (May 5, 2005): Linsey Payson was in Calcutta, India, talking on the phone with her boyfriend. It was mid-April, just days before Scarborough High School would go on spring break.
The adoption papers that would let the high school senior bring home a 3-year-old blind Indian boy were signed and ready to go.
But as she talked to her boyfriend, Andrew Flynn, and as he told her she had a lot of life left to experience, she came to agree that her life would never be the same, and that she was too young – 18 – to take on such a huge responsibility.
And though she had already talked her parents into signing the adoption papers – Payson herself couldn’t adopt the child because she is not married – she didn’t submit them to the Catholic nuns running the orphanage where Robi had been consigned by his family, who are caring for his four siblings, who are not blind.
Payson had gone to Calcutta to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa, who care for the sick and the dying, as well as orphans in one of the world’s poorest and most crowded cities.
She spent two months there, volunteering in a section of the orphanage where disabled children lived. "She loves kids," said Flynn. "She just always wants to be around kids."
“I spent most of my time working with Robi,” Payson said, though there were plenty of others – most with autism or muscular problems that prevented them from being accepted in mainstream Indian society. And though it was an orphanage, many of the children had families, who had refused to care for them.
When Payson arrived in India, she was overwhelmed.
In what she now calls “my biggest dream and my worst nightmare,” she found herself staying in what was for Calcutta a “five-star” hotel, where bugs crawled across the floor and water periodically ran black from the taps. Her room caught fire twice, flooding once as the sprinklers let go.
She paid about $13 a night, and was able to get a television – “I understood about three channels out of 100” – some cupboards and her own private bathroom.
On the streets, she saw people washing in just water, too poor to buy soap. Some owned only the ragged clothes on their backs and a piece of cardboard to cushion the hard sidewalk on which they slept.
Payson ate breakfast at Mother House, the nuns’ headquarters, each morning, in a courtyard open to the sky. “If it rained, we ate breakfast in the rain,” she said.
Then she would go to work at Shishu Bhavan, the orphanage, where 25 disabled children and 250 actual orphans lived.
When she first came to the orphanage, the sisters had written off Robi as having behavioral or mental problems. Payson came to understand they were wrong, and was able to help them see it too.
He wouldn’t eat when the sisters said it was mealtime, so they had to force-feed him on the floor while the other children ate at a table.
But when Payson met him and talked with him, Robi opened up. He started eating, and spoke for the first time. He started mimicking her speech, copying her every word at times.
He was able to join the other children at the table, and began learning letters and numbers in the rudimentary classes the volunteers conducted at the orphanage.
Along the way, Payson fell in love.
“He’s just absolutely amazing,” she said, thinking back to the smiling boy whose only real problem is that he needs a cornea transplant.
The two spent a lot of time together, and Payson came to feel as though she were the mother Robi didn’t have. They would talk and play together, smile and laugh.
Payson decided she wanted to take Robi back to the U.S., where he could get surgery and where he could have a real family – Payson’s.
“He was the reason I got out of bed” each morning in a country where street crime is punished by beatings as police look on, and where people earn a living pedaling others around the city on rickshaws.
"Linsey has always been the child that was unrelenting in what she wanted," Payson's mother, Novella, wrote in a letter to the Current in March. "If she asked for something and did not get the answer she wanted, she would not give up until you saw things her way."
She looked into adoption so deeply and wrote and spoke so passionately about her wish that her parents signed the papers, and the sisters at the orphanage were prepared to revoke Robi’s mother’s parental rights and send him home with the 18-year-old from Scarborough he had known only three months. Her mother had even found a surgeon in Portland who agreed to do the surgery free of charge.
But when the time came, Payson did not turn in the adoption papers. She got on the plane alone, leaving Robi behind, too young to understand why she had come or why she was going.
She returned just before April school vacation, and has spent the days since healing – both from a parasite that still plagues her and from the pain of separation from a child she considers her own.
She is back at work before and after school in the Community Services childcare program at Blue Point School, and is also back – as a Police Explorer – stopping the traffic on Gorham Road to let the high school buses exit in the afternoon.
But when she is alone, it hits.
“I just sit in my room and say I can’t believe I left him there,” she said. “I feel like I left my child in a Third World country.”
She is comforted – though not much – by the thought that the sisters came to see Robi as having promise. They were going to try to get him the surgery he needs and send him to school outside the orphanage, though Payson hasn’t heard any updates since her departure.
One of the nuns told her before she left, “If you hadn’t come here, he would have sat in the corner for the rest of his life.”
But that’s not enough for Payson, who had a modest view of her endeavor. “I didn’t think that going there, being a high school student, that I could make a difference,” she said, knowing now that she has.
“I would love to go back and see him, I would. I would love even more to bring him here,” she said. “I feel like I should have.”
Spreading the word
Last week was her first week home from school, and she has spoken to eight classes at Scarborough High School, as well as a group of teachers and administrators, about the trip.
She went in part because she was inspired by the story of Susan Conroy, a South Portland woman who volunteered with Mother Teresa and spoke to Scarborough students last year.
Now, in her talks, she has inspired at least one student to consider going to India as well, according to history teacher John Lewis.
Payson is still trying to adjust to her homecoming, and life with a new perspective. She hears her friends and classmates say things like “my life sucks,” and wants to tell them, “No it doesn’t. You don’t know the half of it. … At least you have shoes on your feet.”
When kids complain about school, she thinks, “All the kids on the street in India would love to go to school, and they can’t.”
She kept a 200-page journal during her trip, and her mother and a teacher want her to publish it. Payson isn’t so sure.
“If I was someone, I don’t know if I would want to read it,” she said.
She is still working on finding a home for Robi, even as she prepares to graduate from high school next month and attend the University of Southern Maine in the fall.
At night, she dreams Robi is getting off a plane with one of the sisters from Calcutta.“I feel like there’s a piece of me missing. … I know it’s him.”