MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later in the program, we have something to help you unwind this Memorial Day, music from a country star with a most unusual background. He's a doctor who once graced the top of the country charts. We'll hear what he's up to now. That's coming up.
But first, a story of love, loss and honor. Army First Sergeant Charles Monroe King died on October 14, 2006, when an improvised bomb detonated close to his armored vehicle in Baghdad. He left behind an infant son, Jordan, whom he barely knew. But First Sergeant King also left a 200-page journal to help guide his son through life's challenges in case he didn't make it home. After his death, Jordan's mother, Dana Canedy, an editor for the New York Times, wrote a piece for the Times about that journal and their special relationship. And that article has now become a book, "A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor."
And Dana Canedy joins us now from our New York bureau. It's a conversation we're bringing to you in partnership with the online journal, The Root. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. DANA CANEDY (Editor, New York Times): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And it's - how does one say this, Happy Memorial Day? I'm sorry for your loss? How does - how do you even…
Ms. CANEDY: I have no idea.
MARTIN: How do you start?
Ms. CANEDY: You know, I'm still feeling my way through this, so I don't know.
(Soundbites of laughter)
Ms. CANEDY: It's just a day to reflect on, I guess, all the men and women who served so honorably for us and for our freedoms. And I'm both honored that Charles is remembered today among those and sad that he's not here with us, obviously.
MARTIN: Go back to the beginning, if you would. How did you two meet? You seem, on the surface, at least from a distance, as kind of an unlikely pairing.
CANEDY: Oh, my gosh. On the surface, on the inside, on the outside, all over we were different. We met actually in my parents' living room. I'm an army brat and I grew up near Fort Knox. And Charles was stationed there. And I was just home visiting my parents from New York. And I never ever wanted to date a soldier. I had grown up on military bases and I said, this is just not what I want. I want to, you know, go to the big city, be a writer, marry some big city slicker.
And I walked into my parents' living room and there was this shy, gorgeous man and I said, whoa, who is this? And he actually was a friend of my parents. He was a soldier and they met him at a community event.
MARTIN: Well, back up for a second. Why didn't you want to marry a soldier?
CANEDY: I wanted, I think, more freedom to be able to travel and follow my career and so forth. And I knew from being an army brat that, really, the soldier's life has to come first because they're re-stationed every few years and so forth. And also, in the '70s anyway, when I was growing up, I didn't see a lot of women who had much control in their relationships. Most of the men were the ones who had the career and the women stayed home and so forth. That has changed a lot. And also, my parents didn't have the best marriage.
And I think all of that played into my mind in terms of what I thought I wanted. But thank God, that God knows better than we do what we need because that soldier was exactly what I needed.
MARTIN: And why was that? What is it that you, after many trials, it has to be said that…
Ms. CANEDY: Yes.
MARTIN: This wasn't - it might have been love at first sight, but it wasn't commitment at first sight.
Ms. CANEDY: That's right.
MARTIN: So what was it at the end of the day that led you two to choose each other because you could not have been an easy…
Ms. CANEDY: No.
MARTIN: …easy pickings for him either.
Ms. CANEDY: No, I wasn't.
MARTIN: Ms. New York Times senior editor lady.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CANEDY: You know, I think he was amused by me. I talk fast. I talk with my hands. You know, I can be pretty funny and I just think I amused him. For me, he had so much character and so much heart. And he was this big, muscular commanding soldier. But he was so shy and he was an artist as well. And I just, oh, I had never met anyone with that mix of qualities and he just was so consistent and so humble and religious, and I just fell in love with him. Thank God.
MARTIN: You tickle me in the book because you talk about the fact that you had to suppress your editor's desire to correct his…
Ms. CANEDY: English.
(Soundbites of laughter)
Ms. CANEDY: It's funny people pick up on that in the book, and he would kill me if he knew I put that in there. It's not like he had terrible English. He didn't. But I'm just stickler for language. And, yeah, I would do that from time to time.
MARTIN: Well, no, you talked about this one evening where you had had this very intense, romantic engagement and he says, well, did you sleep good? And you had to suppress your desire to say, well, sleep well.
(Soundbites of laughter)
But there was also that lovely moment where you're giving a speech and you're actually - you mention that he's actually very fit. Obviously, he took his physical conditioning very seriously.
Ms. CANEDY: He did.
MARTIN: And you mentioned that probably, as a bookworm, struggled with your weight a little bit. And you talk about the fact that when you were about to give a big speech that you were somewhat nervous about that he kept ironing outfit after outfit of yours because you couldn't decide what to wear.
Ms. CANEDY: Yes. He really looked at what was good inside and out about people. And he just - he loved me as I was. And, yeah, I have struggled with my weight from time to time, particularly during stressful times. And he just - he didn't care. He thought that I had a good heart and he loved me for who I am and I loved him for who he was. I really deeply did. And that's why, after he died, I just had to write to honor him.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News for our special Memorial Day broadcast. We're speaking with Dana Canedy about her book, "A Journal for Jordan." It's a story of love and loss.
Dana, you write very candidly about the fact that you became pregnant with your son, Jordan, before you and Charles were married. And this is a tricky thing given that you're both African-American. And there is a stigma attached to unwed pregnancy which you were not pleased to take on. In fact, there's this scene in the hospital when you're - after you've given birth and you're trying to make sure that Charles' name is on the birth certificate. And they're giving you attitude about it. And you're trying to explain, excuse me, he's in Iraq. But would you talk a little bit about that, if you don't mind.
Ms. CANEDY: Oh, sure. I don't mind. I'm so open. And when you write a memoir, you're literally an open book. I never have lived my life caring what people think, and I still don't for the most part. But I have taken pride in being a professional woman, a good citizen, you know, somebody who loves God. But life is complicated. No adult has an uncomplicated life. And I didn't grow up in a religious family. I came by my love for God very untraditionally.
Charles grew up through the church and was a real God-fearing, church-loving man. He would have preferred that we got married first. But I was turning 40 and he had gotten orders for the war. And that's literally what made me think, wow, I - you know, what do I want here? And so, we were trying actually to plan both - a wedding and to have the baby. And lo and behold, I got pregnant right away, thank God, at 40 years old. And then, he was away training his soldiers for the war. I was sick with morning sickness and trying to work.
And finally, I said to him, Charles, you know, it feels like we're trying to cramp a lifetime of living into a few months. Let's wait until you get back from Iraq to get married. And, you know, obviously, we ran out of time. I really thought that having the wedding to look forward to would give him something to hold on to just as knowing that I was pregnant and he had a child on the way would give him something to hold on to until he came home.
MARTIN: How did the journal come about? Was it his decision? I know you gave him a blank journal. But was it your idea that he would write this beautiful journal to his son or his?
Ms. CANEDY: I was actually in a store buying a gift for a girlfriend and I saw this journal and I just thought - I was about five and half months pregnant. And I thought, you know, God forbid he doesn't come home. Maybe if I get this for him, he'll write a few messages. I didn't expect him to fill up over 200 pages. He thought of everything. He thought that our son - and we knew we were having a son - would need to know to live a life without him if he didn't make it back. He told him about the power of prayer, how to treat a lady, you know, the fact that it's okay for boys to cry, life lessons.
He wanted it to be a road map for our son and that's really what it is, to help guide him through life. I don't know how to teach Jordan to be a man. I really don't. You know, I'm a mother. And thank God he has his father's words. You know, when he gets his heart broken by a girl, his father has something to say about that in the journal. When he's ready to pick a wife, his father has something to say about that. So he really tried to anticipate everything he thought Jordan would need to know.
MARTIN: Would you mind reading something for us?
Ms. CANEDY: Oh, I love to. One of my favorites is actually one of the journal entries. And I said, Charles wrote quite a bit about his expectation that Jordan respect women. And we actually got in a huge fight over his decision not to come home for Jordan's birth. And we worked through it. And eventually, I made peace with it and I understood the decision he made to stay with his soldiers. At that time, I was a couple of weeks away from giving birth and I just, I panicked. I said, oh my God, you know, what am I going to do? But this is what he writes to Jordan in the journal about missing his birth and it's part of the book.
I could not be at your birth because of the war, but you are surrounded by strong women when you were born. All of these women embody the reasons you should never ever disrespect or lay your hand against a woman. Remember who taught you to speak, to walk and to be a gentleman. These are your first teachers, my little prince. Protect them, embrace them and always treat them like a queen. Women with outward beauty are a dime a dozen, but being with a woman with these qualities of loyalty, trust and caring for who you are will have a lot more meaning. Never listen to your friends, follow your heart and look for the strength of a woman.
MARTIN: That's lovely. You know, you point out that he expressed himself on paper in a way that he did not do in person.
Ms. CANEDY: That's right. I think when you're away in a war zone and writing to your unborn child, I can't even imagine how much that would call up everything that's important to you. And I think because he was mindful that this might be the only way our son would know him, he was meticulous and thoughtful and really focused on what mattered and the values and the life lessons that he wanted to impart but also the things he wanted to tell Jordan to make sure that he knew him.
MARTIN: It's - gosh, I hate even to ask you about his, but…
Ms. CANEDY: Oh, go ahead.
MARTIN: You - he sent the journal. You were hoping he would bring it back.
Ms. CANEDY: Yes.
MARTIN: But he didn't. He sent it on ahead. Why do you think he did that?
Ms. CANEDY: Well, he told me why he was doing that. One of his young soldiers had just been killed by a roadside bomb and he had to go in the middle of the night and recover the young man's body. He was 20, 21 years old, the young man was. And it shook him up and got him thinking about his own mortality, and he called and he said, you know, I'm not done writing this, but there's enough in here that if something happens to me, Jordan will me know me. So I want to send it back to you.
And he sent it back. It was about 70-percent complete, and then he came home for two weeks to meet Jordan. It was the only two weeks they had together, when Jordan was six months old, six-and-a-half months old. And he finished it the night before he went back to Iraq, and he was killed six weeks later. He would have had one more month, and he would have been home permanently.
MARTIN: I can't even imagine what that was like, the day you found out that you had lost him.
Ms. CANEDY: It's even hard to put into words. I had never experienced grief like that, and the first thing I learned is that it's - grief of that magnitude is really physical. I mean, I had no control over my body. I collapsed onto the floor and the physical pain was just excruciating.
You lose a sense of time and place. But one of the reasons I did this book is because I wanted to try to look ahead. Now after Charles first died, I wasn't thinking about writing a book or anything like that, but when I pulled myself together little bits at a time, I wanted to show Jordan and any reader who cared to read my book that in tragedy, you have an obligation to your loved ones, you have an obligation to the person who died, to pick yourself up and go on and live a meaningful life and not just survive it but to thrive again. And I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there. And I wanted to try to live this lesson by example.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because I know after your piece in the Times first appeared, there were readers who, many people of course very much appreciated your story, but there are those questioned, why make it public? Why not just keep it as a private message from one father to one son?
Ms. CANEDY: Well this is very interesting. Before Charles died, after he sent the journal to me, I said to him, when he called, I said on my gosh, this is beautiful. I didn't know he could write like this. He was so shy he barely spoke.
And I said to him at the time, hey, do you want to make this into a little booklet? It was really going to be just a small kind of pamphlet-sized book for Father's Day called "From a Soldier to a Son." And he said, oh, look at me, author. Yeah, go ahead. And so you know, I wasn't going to put my name on it or anything. I thought this is a project we can work on together. It'll keep him motivated. I was always trying to think of things to do to keep him focused on coming home.
And so after he died, obviously I decided it was a much different kind of book, but I knew based on our earlier conversations that he would approve. And I wanted - Jordan was young. I wanted to honor his father. I wanted to not just reproduce the journal but to write about our life together so that Jordan could understand our relationship and would get to know his father more fully.
I also wanted people who don't have contact with soldiers maybe to understand the sacrifices that soldiers and their families go through every day, many of them without a book ever written about them.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because as a journalist, there are those who would argue you're straddling two worlds that often do not know a very great deal about each other anymore. It used to be very common for journalists to also be military veterans because, you know, it was compulsory pretty much. And I remember when the piece in the Times first came out in January of '07, there were a lot of people who wrote in to say well, what's your opinion about the war now, Dana? Or what do you think? Do you feel that this was worthwhile? Do you feel that your sacrifice was worth it? And how do you feel about all those questions? What do you make of it?
Ms. CANEDY: Well, I think they're completely understandable. Obviously I put myself out here in a very public way, something I didn't want to do. I never wanted to be a public person, it's just that for two reasons I tried to stay away from talking about the politics of the war. One is because I am a journalist, and I just don't think it's appropriate. But the other thing is, I didn't want the message in this book to get lost. I didn't want it to be about my political views. I'm not an expert on war.
This is about one soldier and our life together and his sacrifice for our country, and hopefully - I don't presume to speak for anybody else but it's representative of a lot of other soldiers and their lives and what they give to our country without people ever knowing about it.
I mean, Charles made some tremendous sacrifices, including not coming home for Jordan's birth because he thought his young soldiers needed him more. They were just getting acclimated to the war, and he said he just couldn't leave them. And there's no place he would have rather been than by my side, but soldiers make those kinds of decisions every day, and I don't think people for the most part are fully aware of that.
MARTIN: Finally Dana, would you hazard any words of wisdom, or a word of wisdom, if you would, for men and women who also have lost someone?
Ms. CANEDY: Thank you for that question. I would just say, hold on to your faith, whatever that is. And take things - you know, people say one day at a time. Sometimes it's one minute at a time, but hold on, hold on. Time does really heal.
I'm not fully healed, but it gets better. And realize that there are people all over this country who appreciate your sacrifice, your loved one's sacrifice and everybody has to feel their own way through, but I think if there's one common thread is that you can be proud of the service and the sacrifice that your loved one made.
MARTIN: Dana Canedy is a senior editor for the New York Times. She is author of "A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor." She was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Happy Memorial Day, Dana. Thank you for talking with us, and we're still so sorry for your loss.
Ms. CANEDY: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: To read an excerpt of the book, please go to our Web site at npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE. We also conducted this conversation in partnership with theroot.com
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