Dear Mr. Ríos, 

My name is Amal and I am a student in the 9th grade in Wisconsin. I recently read your poem When Giving Is All We Have and I was deeply intrigued by it. Your poem immediately made me think about my parents, who both emigrated here to America from Pakistan in order to give my siblings and I a more promising future. They gave up everything they had in their country, their friends, their family and the life they had made there to ensure that my siblings and I could have a better education than they did and have better opportunities than they did. They gave so much to us and continue to do so today. Because of their sacrifice, I am determined to work hard and find a way to pay them back when I’m older. 

I wanted to ask you what experience or even who inspired you to write this poem? What were you thinking about when you wrote it? Did you write the epigraph in the beginning of the poem or did you find it somewhere else, if so, where? 

From your poem, I further realized how much giving to others is as important as getting, because it all completes itself in the end. By making another person happy we in return will gain happiness as well. I hope that more students will read your poem and learn from it like I did. 

Thank you, 

Amal Khan 
Grade 9
Milwaukee, WI

May 1, 2016

Dear Amal,

Many thanks for your comments and for sharing some wonderful things about your life, especially with regard to your parents.

My own parents were much the same as yours. So very many of us have immigrant backgrounds. My parents were both immigrants and both lived lives of giving, particularly when it came to me and my brother. My father came from Mexico and my mother came from England. That’s quite a mix!

I am so glad you asked about the epigraph. Let me tell you a secret about the epigraph. I wrote it myself. And what I was thinking was both funny and serious. My last name, Rios, translated from Spanish, means “rivers.” When I said that one river gives its journey to the next, I was thinking of both my father and my son. My father gave his journey—all its wonders and struggles, all its joys and memories—to me, and I in turn have given so much of myself to my son. It has always felt so simple and right, passing on what you have to someone who might need it. In writing the poem I am talking about everyone, of course, but in that epigraph I am saying something very personal.

Now, back to giving. We have talked about giving in general terms, but you know as I do that giving shows itself best in a hundred hidden ways, so that very often it is almost invisible. It is easy to let a moment of it go by, and then another, and another, until—suddenly—you realize that someone has been giving to you for a whole lifetime—making your favorite dinner, picking up socks, looking to make sure your clothes look all right to go out, even when you’re older. Giving so often is also caring, and the world—our individual worlds—are better in the moment, immeasurably better. However tall we are, we are a little taller because something has been given to us. However hungry we are, we are a little fuller because something has been given to us. Sometimes giving smells good, tastes good, feels good. 

What the poem says is that the answer to figuring out what to do in life stays true and steady, and always begins hand to hand, trying every step of the way to give back the best of what we have and are. We do this with the greater hope that our effort will combine with what’s out there and make, as I say, something greater from the difference. May that “greater” always be good. And that, my friend Amal, that moment when we ourselves give, will feel like something extraordinary. 

Please give my best to your classmates, your teacher, and your parents. You are all very lucky to have each other.

All best,