Maryam Ismail had been divorced for only a few months, but already felt like a statistic: a single divorced mother of an abducted child. "All I needed was my own mini-series."
My Life: A mother reunites with her son
"He hasn't been here since Wednesday," my son's nursery teacher told me when I met her after days of searching for him and his father. I didn't want to, but earlier I had to send my baby to live with my former husband. His apartment had better heating than my 19th-century house, and cold winters in the US state of New Jersey, where we lived, could mean death for child asthmatics such as my son. Hence, I became the "weekend mum" - until one day when my baby was nowhere to be found.
I'd been divorced for only a few months, but already I was a hyphenated statistic: a single divorced mother of an abducted child. All I needed was my own mini-series.
Then my older son, who had remained with me, gave me the message, "He called last night, they're in Egypt." Even with a court order barring either me or my husband from taking our boy out of town, he'd left the country. When I finally got through to Egypt, I was told that they were in Saudi Arabia. After a few more calls, in between the muffled sounds and the long pauses of my former sister-in-law, I knew there would be no easy recovery.
I had two lovely boys, then aged four and nine. For my nine-year-old, the break-up of his family was difficult but losing his brother was devastating. "We are not a family any more," he lamented. To help him manage his pain, he and I became best friends. It was us against the world. He even worked with me as I sold T-shirts to pay my way through college; despite our suffering, we squeezed some goodness out of it, while waiting for better days to come.
A year had gone by when, one day at the train station, like a scene in spy novel, a man approached and told me, "Your husband is here and your boy is still in Egypt."
I contacted the US state department (it took weeks to get the right person) and was chided: "We don't have a Hague Convention with Egypt, didn't you know that before you got married?" Who knows this? I felt like an anguished maiden in a Greek myth whose sorrow turned her into a weeping willow in a river of her own tears.
Still, I was determined and hopeful. Although my emotions would rise and fall on a daily basis, I begged Allah for the return of my son.
After two and a half years, the phone rang and I heard: "You win, come and take him."
When my older son and I arrived in Cairo and were reunited with my baby, he asked, "Ya Baba, who is she?"
My heart cracked but didn't break.
At New York City's JFK Airport, the passport control officer asked, "What was the reason for your trip?" I didn't want to waste any more time so, thinking quickly, I pointed at my son and said, "See the little boy with the teddy bear? I saved him from his kidnappers." Clearly stunned, he said, "Go". Finally, the three of us were home.
We took some time getting reacquainted, playing in the park, looking for bugs under rocks, re-enacting scenes from the Indiana Jones movies and reading Wiley and the Hairy Man. It was fun and frustrating. Alhamdulillah.
When I think of those days, I can't imagine that was me. As for my baby boy, he's out of college and claiming that as soon as he hits it big, he's going to save me from the UAE's hot deserts for something, cool, green and lush. Even though I am here and he is in the US, we speak nearly every other day. He's a son most mothers can only dream about. And so, looking back, I can say, without regret, Allah is the best of planners.
Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE.