"i am" poems

On Saturday, I received a second letter from my new pen pal who has been on death row in an Alabama "correction facility" for ten years. He's there along with about 165 other men who have also received death sentences, each languishing in their own little cell. Studies show that as many as four percent of death row inmates are likely innocent of the crimes they've been convicted of committing. That's equal to nearly seven innocents in that one Alabama prison alone, in a nation where some people cling to the platitude, All lives matter.

In response to my pen pal's letter, I told him I had recently finished the book, Reading with Patrick. It's author, Michelle Kuo, writes deftly and movingly about her time as a high school teacher in a small Mississippi Delta town. I went on to tell my pen pal that the author asked her students to write "I am" poems. I wrote a quick one in my letter to him:

I am strong
I wonder how life would have been if my son were "normal"
I hear my son complain, and I don't know why
I see the wind blowing through the trees
I want to make the world a better place
I feel sad some of the time
I cry when I am overtired and lamenting the loss of my child who is still alive
I understand how important it is to listen to others
I dream of a just and loving america and world
I try my best, but I still fail
I hope life gets easier, though I am still grateful for may things

I asked my pen pal if he might want to write an "I am" poem and send it back to me. I am hoping so.

At the end of my letter to him I drew a picture of our dog, Smellie, then signed off by saying, Know that I am thinking of you. I folded the pages around a self-addressed stamped envelope plus a family photo taken seven years ago which I discovered, slightly crumpled, in the back of my desk drawer.

I can't help but wonder what my son Calvin, who is nonverbal, cognitively and physically disabled, might write in his own "I am" poem if he were able. But since he isn't, I wrote a version for him, imagining him capable of certain complex thoughts:

I am a fighter
I wonder why I'm not going to school anymore
I hear my mom drop the F-bomb a lot
I see my mom get annoyed with me sometimes
I want to be able to do things by myself
I feel frustrated when I'm not understood
I cry when my head and tummy hurt
I understand that I am loved
I dream of being able to speak
I try to do my best at everything
I hope one day my seizures stop

Rereading my poems, I'm reminded of how vital it is to see life from another person's perspective, which is the main reason I was interested in raising a child. I want to understand why and how other people grieve. I want to bear witness to other's struggles and to feel empathy. It seems that the America we live in—one which too often embraces the myth of rugged individualism and mantras like, Don't tread on me—suffers from a lack of understanding and empathy for those who face certain stresses and obstacles in their daily lives which hinder their ability to live life fully, enjoy liberty and pursue happiness. I'm thinking of Americans who are homeless, hungry, hurting, cold. I'm thinking of Americans who are disabled, hated, disenfranchised, imprisoned. I'm thinking of Americans who don't have jobs, health insurance, savings, and those who can't vote.

I slide my folded letter and family photo into an envelope, address it, seal it, stamp it and pop it into the mailbox for its trip to Alabama. Doing so, I imagine my pen pal passing long hours in his cell. I consider the fact that he never got the chance to vote and will likely never be able to vote for the leaders who will write laws and policy which directly affect him. I think of the number of innocent people who are imprisoned and on death row who are disproportionately people of color. I wonder what kinds of "I am" poems they'd be writing if they could.

Photo by Michael Kolster


  1. Christy, this is so moving, sad yet inspiring. Thank you for sharing with all of us, giving us space for reflection.

  2. So touching, as always, Christy! I especially love the poem from Calvin's perspective. He may be non-verbal but you give him a voice in this space, mirroring his voice and perspective more authentically than many mothers are able to accomplish with verbal children. For real!

  3. I'm so curious what his "I am" poem will say. I loved yours and Calvins.