So That If I Died It Mattered

May 6, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 33 9 min read


I went back to Ohio Friday night to see another friend from college get married. This was my fifth such wedding in three years. Surrounded by my Ohio friends and their spouses, I found myself having to consider, once again, what it means to be 29 and not in a meaningful relationship. My last long-term romance concluded in the wake of my graduation from Ohio University in 2006. I immediately migrated to the creative mecca of New York, a city that doesn’t pressure you to grow up in the same way the Midwest does. Professionally and creatively-speaking, it is a world class incubator, no doubt. But if you wish to remain a career bachelor, you receive a Big Apple cosign into your seventies. Every transplant I know has had to head home at some point to face the germinating evidence of their profound singleness.

I was in Ohio less than 24 hours, as I had to return to perform a poetry set on Sunday afternoon at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park. I am a working poet. Over the past six years, I have led creative writing workshops and performed poetry in auditoriums, bars, syringe exchanges, universities, libraries, prisons, youth centers, bookstores, and theaters in Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and across the United States. The pay is modest but manageable, and every time I seriously consider a less freelance source of income, some new window of opportunity opens whispering, don’t be afraid, you are supposed to be here.

When asked to explain my choices, I’ve said, “Art is how you explain what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century. I am an emotional historian.” But that’s really my answer to, “Why should we all make art?” My why is more personal. When I hit a writing groove, or perform, all these divided parts focus into one story. In these small moments, I am not confused about what matters.

Looking out at the crowd in Tompkins Square Park, I realize that this is the largest audience I have ever performed for. Over 6,000 people spread across the grass and concrete to see jazz. I go to the bathroom five times in 45 minutes, and nearly throw up in front of the Summer Stage photo backdrop. Jeanne Kabenji once told me that, “Stage fright is your body informing you of a journey into the unknown.” I wish I had asked anyone I love to be here.

Yesterday, my mother drove two hours from Cincinnati to take me to breakfast. While my hungover stomach caved in around itself in the Columbus Red Roof Inn, I prayed to the gods of clarity to make me a good son. I’ve spent too many years taking out my own emotional confusion on my mother because she never stops loving me. She would rather be with me than without me, even when I’m a dick, and I’ve spent years fashioning that into some sort of license.

I make it through a breakfast burrito, and keep the narratives about last night’s reception minimalist. We have two hours until she drives me to the airport, so we go to Goodale Park.

My mother is the kindest person a lot of people know. I often tell her this, and she consistently assures, “You haven’t always known me.”

She was the seventh of twelve children in an Irish-Catholic, anti-contraception household in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. In 1995, my grandmother was losing a battle with cancer, while single-handedly caring for my grandfather whose brain was succumbing more, each day, to Alzheimer’s. She allowed my mother to visit and stay until she passed; to change my grandfather’s diapers, take him on walks; to bring my grandmother water, and make her bed. My mother has a history of never asking more from those who are suffering, and she listens to people (not just loved ones) in a way that makes them feel heard. That scene in White Men Can’t Jump where Rosie Perez explains love to Woody Harrelson, something like, “I don’t want you to bring me water, I want you to sympathize. To say Gloria, I too know what it’s like to be thirsty.” My mother invented that shit, but she also brings water.

This spawned years of rebellion from me, her youngest son. I pursued independence by repeatedly rejecting, resenting, desperately succumbing to, and then ultimately depending on this profound well of empathy. By “repeatedly,” I mean over, and over, and over between the ages of 13 and 28. This didn’t prevent me from appreciating my mother, but it did prevent me from humanizing her kindness.

After my parents’ brief separation when I was 14, my body would not let my mother cry around me. I would, literally, fall asleep. My father, with a heavy heart, had left the home of his wife and four children in order to find out more about the love he had for another woman. It was impossible for my mother to talk about what was happening without crying, and my reaction was always swift. Eventually, she stopped telling me. For 14 years, we focused on a subject we both loved: Me.

This Saturday in Columbus is the longest time I’ve spent alone with my mother since I was a teenager. The overt parts of who I am, I immediately trace to my father. I was a chubby kid (as was my dad), and my three older brothers were not, which made everyone assume I was the primary recipient of his genetics. We are both viscerally stubborn, until quietly we are not. We don’t allow the ones we love to know we have heard them. We lash out defensively, then, over time, we let them watch us change.


coverMy time slot at the Jazz Festival is just before the headliner: Gregory Porter is a legend, and the park quakes for him. The ten minutes it takes his band to set up is to be filled with poetry. The festival host from Jazz 88.3 says only, “Now welcome the author of The New Clean, Jon Sands.” Followed by 6,000 people who do not know I can see each of their faces, individually. I begin a poem called “When I See Andre 3000 Buying Bananas at Trader Joe’s.” The first line is, I say everything you’ve ever done/ has meant so much to me./ He says, I’ve done PCP. I say/ that meant so much to me. 

When I get to the part of the poem where Andre 3000 asks me about everything I’ve ever done, I have to admit, I masturbated this morning picturing/ a woman I made out with two years ago./ I am preachy and self-important/ when I talk about race with my family,/ sometimes when I’m not listening,/ I make my face look like it’s SUPER listening.

The crowd communicates two types of people: those who have no idea what is happening on stage at this jazz festival, and are entertained by that, and those who have no idea what is happening, and are decidedly not. I’m not sure which camp I fall in.

The poem ends to a confused smattering of applause, and I say, “The other poem I’d like to read you today is a love poem.” This is the first time I have ever been booed. It was only about 100 of 6,000, but 100 sounds like a shitload.

I say, “I know! I can’t wait to hear Gregory Porter either, but he needs to set up!” Then I introduce the poem I wrote for the wedding of my brother Ben in October of 2011 on the occasion of his marriage to a Texas transplant named Wendell. They had been engaged before same-sex marriage was legal in New York, and whenever fielding questions of whether they planned to go to Massachusetts to legitimize their nuptials, they’d reply that they wanted to get married in the city where they had fallen in love, where they go to work, pay taxes, argue, take walks, and drink coffee. If the civil rights didn’t exist yet— they would vote, and they would wait.

The first time I read the poem aloud was to my brother, sunk into his couch in Hell’s Kitchen. It documents the night Ben first knew he loved Wendell, four months into their relationship. Wendell leapt from the bed they shared, mid-credits of a James Bond movie, to execute an interpretive spy dance around Ben’s bedroom in his underwear. This man, possessed only by the desire to bring him joy, unlocked Ben. The poem says of my brother, You are traveling into your past where he is/ not, but now you see him everywhere./ In the moving van at nine years old. At thirteen,/ in the mirror and the bottle of pills, he was there./ In the arms of the first man to hold you/ and assure you were beautiful. 


In my high school of 2,200 kids, Ben was the only student out-of-the-closet. He came out the summer before his junior year, but four years prior, after being bullied at choir practice by an eighth grader who called him a faggot (something that had happened to him since he was in second grade), he quietly admitted to himself that everyone was right. He was shameful, and it would be best for our family if he wasn’t here. He walked into our bathroom and swallowed a bottle of Advil. A half hour later he told my mother, and in three minutes he was riding shotgun in my father’s Ford Taurus doing 55 on the back roads to the hospital. The doctors induced vomiting, and he spent the next four hours in a hospital bed while my mother brushed the hair across his forehead and whispered over and over again that she loved him.

I read the poem I wrote for his wedding to this man who I need to never lose faith in me: my brother, who has played an unimaginable role in the person I am attempting to become. The poem had to claw from my mouth as we held each other sobbing on the couch.

The reading in Tompkins Square Park is less cathartic. I can see the individual faces, the ones that have no idea that I’m looking at them. Some are angry that I am still on stage. A few have tears in their eyes. Some are confused. Some not. As though nudged from a dream, my set is over, and I am free to consider what just happened. The stage manager says, “Tough crowd, huh?” I am 29 and single, walking backstage to mild applause.

My mother’s younger sister Mary died at four years old. She drowned in a lake behind their house. My mom is 60 now, sitting with me in Goodale Park. She tells me that years after her death, the man who found Mary’s body would die as a drunk driver in a car accident. He had carried the body back to their house. Each brother and sister saw her laid out at 4:00 p.m. on the only free bed. A neighbor cooked them all hot dogs and heated up frozen corn, and by 5:00 p.m. all the younger children were put to bed. In the morning, they woke for the wake, and by 2:00 p.m. Mary was buried forever in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

She tells me that when the family got home from the funeral, her two eldest siblings, both in high school, were scheduled to attend a weekly sock-hop. My grandparents urged them to go, saying, “You have to move on with your life.” For years, her parents rarely spoke of Mary. My mother would learn in her adult life that they had spent three years of nights privately crying in the dark.

My mom was seven, learning that grief did not involve sadness. You die, then a hole closes around where you were, perhaps leaving a small scar, and then the survivors continue with the business of mortality. Her parents fought, perhaps, the most difficult battle of their lives in silence in order to not burden their children with even a small share of grief.

“Did you think that was a good thing?” I ask.

“Honestly, as a child, I never thought about that.”

It wasn’t until over a decade later, when my mother was at Creighton University in Omaha, that she slid into a profound depression. Her realization, thousands of miles from her gigantic family and past, was that if she died, it would be a small story on the Creighton Campus, a small story in New Jersey, and ultimately, no one depended on her survival.

Then she tells me, her youngest son, what I never thought to ask. “I really tried hard to be the best person I could be. So that if I died it mattered.”

She puts a hand on my forearm, and her face scrunches together like it might withhold what she just said. Tears begin to drop from her cheek and gather on the wood. I can see all that I have inherited in this life from work my mother did before she ever knew me; what it means that I am sitting across from her in an empty park watching her cry. I picture my mother again at the hospital with Ben in 1994. I can see how she must have wanted nothing more than to protect him at choir practice, to defend him in study hall, or anywhere else that adolescence proved itself relentless to her 13-year-old son; how all she had to give was the person she had become, how it placed her by his hospital bed: a steadfast witness, a position she would never abandon; how then when he came out of the closet four years later, she knew that he had saved his own life.

I can see how much it meant to me to be asked to document the love story of my older brother; to be held, weeping on his couch, in recognition of the life we’ve spent together. Since I was born, I have always assumed I was becoming only my father. I can see how the desire to matter is not a charge that began with my birth, or will culminate with my death. My eyes are open, and I can see, for a moment, who I have become.

is the author of The New Clean (2011, Write Bloody Publishing), and starred in the award winning web-series Verse: A Murder Mystery from Rattapallax Films. He is an adjunct with the City University of New York, a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC, and teaches creative writing at Bailey House in Harlem (an HIV/AIDS service center). He writes a regular interview column with Union Station Magazine, and is the co-founder of Poets in Unexpected Places. He tours extensively, both nationally and internationally. Say yes to