I have been bursting into tears at regular intervals. Sometimes it’s full-out sobbing when I am alone, like last night when I was writing this post. At other times, my throat wells up and a few tears trickle out in public, including right before I taught my first class last week. Did my students notice my trembling voice? Did the woman who served me an Edo Japan lunch remark on my puffy eyes? Did anyone taste salty tears in the dish I brought to the welcome back pot luck? I usually hide my emotions, but this time it is impossible. I am heartbroken.
When I first saw the picture of the dead little boy, my stomach lept into my mouth. My muscles tensed and I felt horror. That small, vulnerable body, all alone. Those tiny feet, still wearing shoes. The arch of his neck. His legs tucked under his body. Alan Kurdi looked just like my little boy asleep in his crib. I saw my worst nightmare and another parent’s reality. I am crying again with the memory of it. How can I continue to live my life as usual after seeing that image? I cannot.
Did it really take a social media photograph of a dead child to wake me up to the refugee crisis in Syria? Yes. I am an asshole. Apparently there are plenty of other privileged western assholes exactly like me. They too were horrified and maybe even tearful while reaching for their cheque books or sending paypal donations to better people, like those who work at the Migrant Offshore Aid Station in Malta (http://www.moas.eu). Those who rescue refugees at sea must encounter fear and desperation on a daily basis. Yesterday my biggest fear was getting kicked by a guy who was crowd surfing at the Tenacious D concert.
I imagine the dead boy’s family getting on a small raft, unreassured by promises that the vessel had already made the crossing several times. It became colder, windier, rougher. The family clung tightly to each other until it had no other choice and everything was wet, dark, noisy and then quiet. I think about people suffocating to death in a cargo hold, or being jammed in the back of a hot transport truck. I wonder how it must have smelled, how those inside felt utter physical and mental exhaustion after a long journey that seemed like it would never end. I cannot think about anything else. These ideas run through my head when I am talking to my colleagues, holding office hours with students, listening to live music, and watching Baby TV with my son on my lap. My healthy, warm, safe son.
The psychological term for my current mental pattern is “perseveration,” in which a person lacks the “ability to transition or switch ideas appropriately with the social context.” I have been told to stop thinking about this picture, to cease reading about refugees online. I cannot. Am I going crazy? Or is my reaction really all about myself as usual? Is it informed by the stress of being entirely responsible for the life of a 19-month-old boy? But what else should I be doing at this point in time? Should I really be heading to the gym, teaching a spin class, reading a book about seventeenth-century microscopy, skimming a post about how to finally love my body and create my own happiness? None of these things really matter. Yes I can donate money, sign petitions, rail against heartless government officials, and try to sponsor a refugee family. In fact I am doing all of these things. Big fucking deal. Maybe I could also ask the doctor to give me some ativan to help calm me down. She could reassure me that I am not living on the backs of millions of poor and suffering people who conveniently live far away, who are not my problem when helpless, alone, or washed ashore on a cold beach. Surely I have paid my dues after a week nightmares, grinding my teeth until my jaw hurts, and crying?
I will never pay my dues. I have so much more than I deserve, mostly through the sheer luck of having been born in Canada, the country that denied the immigration request of the dead boy’s family members. Now the man with two dead sons and a dead wife will have to find some other place to live. I cannot even pretend to help him. It is too late for that.