I knew I had to save the one relationship that mattered the most: the one between mother and son.
I still remember exactly when I met the woman who would have such a significant effect on my life. I was in my mid-20s, working at Soas University of London, when I ventured out to Friday prayers at a nearby mosque and saw her – a towering figure, head held high and covered with a pristine white hijab. She drew me in like a tractor beam.
She was a young widow, around 40 years old. A fierce, strong-minded woman – the direct type who took no nonsense. If you were an idiot, she’d let you know it. Fortunately, she didn’t think I was one, and what began as a brief encounter at the mosque developed into a deep friendship.
I’d stay over at her place, we’d laugh, knock back strong chai and chat for hours about life, faith and aspirations. We even went on holiday together. I admired her uncompromising confidence and she taught me to step into mine. She became something of a mentor, helping me to embrace who I was.
She often told me she looked forward to introducing me to the only family she had – her son – who was a couple of years younger than me. He was at sea for months at a time as he worked in the merchant navy.
When we finally met at his mum’s place, he was not what I expected. He looked like an Eminem-fan skater boy from the 90s in his baggy jeans and hoodie. But he was sweet, thoughtful and chivalrous.
We also started a friendship, and the three of us hung out. My friendship with him grew when he was at sea and over the next five years we’d exchange long emails that would get quite philosophical. He was one of the purest souls I had known. All the while, his mum loved that we were in touch.
I imagined myself as a bit of an Emma to his Eminem and tried my best to matchmake him with a friend when he was on shore. He reluctantly agreed but ultimately turned her down. He asked to meet me to explain. We met in a restaurant in London’s Soho for dinner. He handed me a scrolled up canvas from his travels. As I unravelled the beautiful oil painting of fishing boats floating along a Singapore skyline, he confessed he had fallen in love with me, his only true friend.
I looked down at the painting, wanting to dive in, and escape. I was scared. I didn’t feel the same. But I still said I would try to see him as something more.
The first person I wanted to talk to about it all was of course his mum; he had told her about his feelings for me. I tried calling for several days, and finally when she picked up, instead of comfort, there was coldness; instead of ease, there was tension. She barely let me speak, saying that it was between me and her son. It had nothing to do with her.
But it had everything to do with her. When she ended the call, I felt broken. All the trust and love we had built over the years was crushed in a moment. She never called me again. To this day, I don’t know whether she shut me out because she thought we had crossed a line, or because I didn’t reciprocate her son’s feelings. We never got to have that conversation.
My phone rang the next morning. It was him. He was boarding his ship, leaving again for several months. I felt my words weigh on me like stones as I told him I couldn’t be with him, not even as a friend. He was taken aback, saying I had decided this all on my own. He sounded as broken as his mum had made me feel. And I felt dreadful for him.
That call sealed the end for both my friendships, with mother and son.
I didn’t fight for my friendships. I let them slide away. The situation felt too complex and I was out of my depth. My decision was mixed with shock and hurt from the mum’s reaction, being overwhelmed by the son’s feelings for me, and being torn between the two. Deep down, perhaps I knew that I wouldn’t love him the way he wanted, and I also knew after this I couldn’t go back to the carefree, unspoilt bond that I had enjoyed with his mum.
At the same time as feeling powerless, I let myself believe I could save the one relationship that mattered most – the one between mother and son. I clung to that idea at the time. The last thing I wanted was to be a barrier in their relationship.
I have thought about them both from time to time, even dreamed that I’ve bumped into them and reconciled our differences.
It was painful to end the friendships, but things had changed, we had changed, and we couldn’t go back to how we were. Yet all the times and memories we had together: no one, not even the pain, can take that away.
Source: Journalist Remona Aly