The Syrian civil war has become a war of numbers. When the violence becomes too ghastly we beat a hasty retreat to discuss the horror antiseptically; numbers are safer and cleaner. Ten million living away from their homes, four million refugees, three hundred fifty thousand fleeing into Europe, two hundred fifty thousand killed, three thousand drowned in the Mediterranean, seventy one suffocated in a gondola in Austria – and one little Kurdish boy.
One little Kurdish boy.
By now we all know the name Aylan. He has become the martyr for the cause of the hundreds of thousands of souls who grab white-knuckled onto rubber dinghies or cram into the darkened interiors of trucks that smell of fish and sweat; the panic in their yellow eyes at their flight ahead only exceeded by their panic in staying still. For those who hand over wads of crumpled bills pulled from bra cups and boxers to be given to a greasy man with a comb-over and a blackened toothless grin. For those who leave families behind; in the camps or worse – so much worse – in horrible dungeon prisons run by somebody or somebody else.
Aylan made all their stories real and gave them a smell: death. Because little boys should not smell like death, they should smell like life. I have a little boy too and I know what little boys should smell like. Little boys should smell a little bit sour, like morning milk that spilled on their shirt and has gone bad. Little boys should smell salty, from the play dough jammed up under their fingernails and the dried sweat from running around after a lizard all morning. Little boys should smell like the musty earthiness of a naptime diaper overlaid with macaroni and cheese leftover from lunch.
Aylan will never smell like any of these things again. His father will have to find a way to live with that, remembering as any father does – as I do – the special smells of little boy life. I hope I never have to endure what Aylan’s father is enduring. Because we are not too different, Aylan’s father and me. A little bit of bad luck, a bad leader (to be sure, in Syria’s case a really bad leader), and the limited options available in a hard, unfeeling world; and I could be swimming through the cold water, paddling maddly with my feet as I hold my son high above my head. This fact makes me feel a little more deeply and pray for the thousands of other fathers in their plight as I think “there but for the grace of God go I” during nightly devotions with my son at my side, who still smells of life.