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Dana Canedy - A Gift For Jordan
10/20/2009 - By Teja Anderson
Photo by McKay Imaging
A Fallen Soldier’s Journal for Their Son is Fulfilled by Fiancé
and Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist, Dana Canedy
Dana Canedy had it all – a rewarding and prestigious job as a senior editor at the New York Times (where she had won a Pulitzer Prize), a wedding to plan with the love of her life, Charles, a highly decorated soldier who was to return from Iraq in just 6 weeks, and Jordan, their beautiful baby boy who now completed their family. But the fairy tale was not to be. U.S. Army First Sergeant Charles Monroe King was killed when a bomb exploded beneath his armored vehicle. It was October of 2006, and Jordan was just 6 months old.
Dana and Charles were not childhood sweethearts, but a chance meeting in Dana’s childhood home on Fathers’ Day weekend 1998 in Radcliff, Kentucky, blossomed over the next 7 years into a love that distance, careers, and vastly different personalities could not break. When the committed couple found out that Charles would be shipped off to Iraq they began to prepare for the best and for the worst. The best was the decision to start a family. Luckily, Dana became pregnant on the first attempt; the couple then got engaged. Perhaps fearing the worst, Dana gave Charles a father’s journal in which to write his thoughts, advice, and childhood memories to his unborn son. Charles took the journal with him to Iraq, writing more than 200 pages to his son; he got spooked when one of the 105 brave men he was in charge of was killed, so he shipped the journal home and was able to finish it several months later on a 2-week leave when he got to meet his son and spend time with Dana before returning to Iraq.
Once Dana was able to start coping with the loss of Charles and heal from the pain of his death she found an ally in the very journal Charles had written for Jordan, and she began to write one to him herself. What came out of both their efforts was a book, A Journal for Jordan, Dana’s free-flowing memories entwined with highlighted paragraph excerpts from Charles’ journal. Dana, who owns a home in Ocean Grove, took time out of her busy life to sit down with Living In–The Jersey Shore.
LIJS: You have been a reporter for a long time, but now you are the one being interviewed. How has that been for you?
DC: You know, it’s fine. It’s not much different from being a reporter in that I am able to anticipate most of the questions. But inevitably, especially on the book tour, something comes up that I hadn’t expected, and that’s the most fun for me because then I really do feel like someone who is being interviewed. Because most people who are being interviewed are not celebrities and so most questions are coming at them for the first time, it’s a good reminder for me to know how that feels. But in general it’s been fine.
LIJS: You started out the book tour in your home town of Radcliff, Kentucky?
DC: Yes, I did that on purpose. The people in Radcliff have been so supportive of everything that Jordan and I have been through from the time Charles died that I thought it was appropriate, and I am glad I did…it was just an unbelievable reception. The town had a dinner for us when the book was launched. It was just incredible!
LIJS: A lot of your family and friends are mentioned in the book. Had they had a chance to read it before the tour?
DC: Some of them had, some of them hadn’t.
LIJS: You are pretty honest and open in the book, especially about your relationship with your father, Thomas J. Canedy, Senior. Was he okay with that? Did he know what you were going to reveal about him?
DC: Yes and yes. He was completely supportive, believe it or not. He would even call me on the book tour, which was a 7 week, 12 city event and say, “I know you are tired, and I just want you to know how proud of you I am.” I think he approved for a couple reasons: one because the person I wrote about doesn’t exist anymore; now he is the cuddly grandfather; the man who I had a difficult relationship with as a child has faded away and has been replaced by a loving grandfather. Also, I think it allowed him to realize, without us having to directly discuss it, some of the damage that was there from my childhood, and I believe it was his way of acknowledging it and saying “I’m sorry and I accept your feelings.”
LIJS: So you still haven’t discussed his having an ongoing affair with another woman while being married to your mother Penny?
DC: Oh gosh, yes. That we discussed when we were kids; but I meant the damage that was done to us…I never said to him, “You know, you really hurt us.” So I think him seeing it in the book allowed him to understand the way it shaped my life and my siblings’ lives in a way he maybe hadn’t thought about before. But instead of getting angry or defensive, he used it as a way to validate our feelings.
LIJS: I know that childhood memories can sometimes feel different for siblings, like growing up in separate houses; recollections can be so different. We’re lucky to have your younger sister Lynnette here. Lynnette, when you read the book were you surprised by anything?
LC: I wouldn’t say that I was surprised, but I think I had always been in denial about a lot of things. While Dana has always been very pragmatic and very logical, I was kind of living in the fantasy childhood, so it made me acknowledge things that I didn’t really want to acknowledge.
LIJS: Dana, when you were younger you always knew you wanted to be a writer, but not necessarily a journalist?
DC: Yes, that’s true. You know I think it’s interesting that I had a fantasy of being a novelist…you know, working out of coffee shops and all that. But as a child I was always inquisitive, just like my son is, and so in reality I really can’t see myself doing anything other than being a journalist, being a reporter, because my favorite question is always “Why?” I am always asking why. I am very detail oriented and like getting to the core of things, so it was just natural that I became a journalist.
LIJS: But now with A Journal for Jordan you’ve stretched your writing skills a little further.
DC: Yes, but this book is not a novel, it is not fiction – it is a memoir. This is a really important distinction, because there has been so much written that hasn’t been factual. A memoir is non-fiction that is completely true, where as in a novel there are obviously parts that are made up.
LIJS: The cover is one of the first things that strikes the reader because it is a silhouette of a man and boy. The boy is probably about 3 or 4, yet Jordan was only 6 months when his father was killed. We also know that Charles was a very gifted artist. So why wasn’t one of his creations used on the cover?
DC: We went through about 200 covers before we settled on this. It’s interesting that you pick up on the age because this is supposed to be symbolic and not literal, representing a lot of things: a son growing and knowing his father; a father introducing himself to his son; a father presenting himself with his life story to his son… And so this is really meant to be iconic and symbolic, ageless and timeless, telling the story metaphorically. We played with a lot of different things…a photo of Charles and Jordan together, a photo of his dog tags…
LIJS: You started writing the book to Jordan when he was 10 months old and just 4 months after you lost Charles. What made you ready then?
DC: (sighs) Well, what really happened was that after the funeral I went back to work at the New York Times. I am an editor there. I found that I just could not bury Charles and go back to work; I had to do something with my grief. The first thing that happened was that we were coming up on the milestone in this country of the 3,000th dead soldier. We were setting up to do a big batch of stories on it at the paper and I thought to myself, “I am the only national journalist in the country who has had this experience, and I am the only one who can tell it from a first person point of view, having lost a loved one.” The managing editor for the paper, Jill Abramson (who is also a good friend of mine), came by my desk just to see how I was doing, and I said, “Hey, I think I’d like to write something about Charles.” I had no idea if I could do it or once I had if they were going to put it on the front page. The response was completely and utterly overwhelming. So many readers from all over the world wrote in, called in, e-mailed, that we had to put a notice up on our website to let readers know that I couldn’t possibly answer all of them but that I appreciated it. After that, the book just followed from there.
LIJS: So after the book tour you told your story on “Oprah.” Do you get recognized now?
DC: I do, and it’s a weird thing. Mostly Jordan gets recognized. You know, we have been on “Good Morning America,” “World News Tonight,” “Inside Edition,” and in People magazine. I never wanted this kind of publicity, but I’m grateful for it. But it’s odd… I’ll be in a garage or in a store, the Children’s Museum or in an airport. And [I’ll] feel someone staring at me. It’s really weird. And then they come up and ask me if I wrote “that book.”
LIJS: Well it’s going to get a lot worse. The buzz is that bigger things are in store…a movie with Denzel Washington?
DC: Yes, Denzel Washington is going to star in and produce; he bought the rights. My son and I got to meet him, and he is just a beautiful person, an amazing spirit. He connected with the story, and we are working on the screenplay…mostly they are. I am a consultant on the film. I don’t know when exactly it will go into production, but it is definitely in the works, and Charles would be completely embarrassed by all of this. He was very shy (giggles).
LIJS: He wouldn’t have been a little bit flattered to have Denzel playing him?
DC: Oh, maybe a little. But he was so shy. First of all, he would be totally appalled that there is a picture of him without his shirt on in the book. (Laughing) I used to love to embarrass him before, and that’s what he gets for dying on me. I’m going to keep on embarrassing him as long I can!
LIJS: Have they chosen the actress yet to play you?
DC: No. And I really don’t care as long as she is a quality person because this really isn’t about me. People think this is so exciting – having a best selling book in several countries and a movie coming out and all – but it’s not exciting. Honestly, this is not something to be excited about; I wish none of this existed, but I am proud. I am proud that Jordan will know his father this way…that people all over the world will know about Charles now. I’ve gotten letters from soldiers in Iraq who said that after reading the book it gave them the strength to get through the war. It’s for Jordan, it’s for Charles, and it’s for Charles’ parents, and I really feel that I am the least of it.
LIJS: But you are so very much a part of the story. You have worked very hard to keep Charles’ memory alive.
DC: Believe me, it’s been hard work. I am tired. I’ve got a 3-year old, [I have] a full-time job at the New York Times, and I have the movie project. It’s a lot, emotionally, logistically, to handle… it’s a lot. But you know, I wanted to try, once I had picked myself up off the floor and got out of bed after Charles died, to get through this with a measure of dignity. I wanted Jordan to look back on this one day and realize that when he was a baby his mother had to go through all this and she did it. So if God forbid he ever has to go through any hard times himself he will see that you can pick yourself up and keep going. That is really why I am doing it. It hasn’t been easy for me since Charles died, I don’t sleep well, and I’ve put on 25 pounds. But it’s getting easier. We have a lot of wonderful support from family and friends.
LIJS: Is raising a 3 year old as a single parent difficult?
DC: No. Actually it’s not that…that’s the easiest part of it for me. It’s finding the time to do it all well. To put in 8 to 10 hours a day at the New York Times, to get on an airplane on the weekend to go speak about the book, and then go back on a Monday morning and still find quality time with my son. And, frankly, I am still grieving. I still have dreams about Charles. The hardest part sometimes is the things that Jordan asks me about his father. It’s the totality of it, not the parenting; the parenting is the best part. But it’s hard, I am four different people: a mother, a journalist, an author, and a grieving widow.
LIJS: Once you started gathering information about Charles for the book what were some of the differences you found between the man you knew and the man others knew?
DC: (Laughs) That they were two different people. Charles was so shy and so sweet and so quiet and almost passive, and then to hear that he was this warrior person…apparently the alpha dog who could get in your face…to hear that he would swear at his soldiers and intimidate people was crazy! I mean I used to push him around.
LIJS: Also, when you started doing your research you found that there were discrepancies in the official story of how Charles died. Do you think that hurt you or helped?
DC: Oh gosh, I don’t think it ever helps because what you need at a time like that is clarity. It was the opposite of producing clarity for me. I ultimately got the clarity when I reported through it and wrote through it. But at the time it was really hard.
LIJS: In the book you talk about the struggle you have between your admiration for Charles and your anger for having…
DC: (Interrupts) Oh, I still get angry with him!
LIJS: How old do you think Jordan will be when he is ready to read the book? There’s a lot of very adult content and incredibly personal information in there.
DC: When he becomes a man, a young man. I don’t know if that will be when he is 15 or 25. You know, when I started writing I had the image of him reading it to his own son some day, but if it’s before the age of maturity then we will have to decide together. After 18 it will be when he feels like he needs it. Charles’ journal, on the other hand…I want him to grow up with it. I want him to feel like he has a conversation with his dad. If he wants to hear about what it is like getting his heart broken by a girl he can turn to that and reference his dad’s own words; when he realizes one day what it means that his father is dead, he can turn to it and get comfort from his dad from how much he loved him. So I want him to grow with that journal. There are things that are written for a boy, there are things that are written for a man, and he will decide when he needs it…You know, I want him to become very familiar with it because it will mean different things to him throughout his life.
LIJS: Wow! How are you going to protect that precious journal?
DC: Everybody asks that! It’s in a bank vault, and I think what I am going to do is have it digitally scanned so that he has something that looks and feels kind of like it. I will let him see the real journal whenever he wants, like over a weekend, but I want to protect it for him.
LIJS: This wonderful man that you lost, this kind, gentle, decent, and I’m sorry, but you describe him as a pretty “buff” and sexy man, you actually pay homage to in the book…is this going to be a tough act to follow? Will you ever be able to date again?
DC: Well, the answer to that is probably never. I mean, I am at a point where I can’t even imagine dating, but the interesting thing that I have found is that recently the men I have been strongly drawn to…it’s because they look exactly like him. But I realize that that is not the right reason to be attracted to somebody. So if I ever do decide to date it would be for the same reasons I had before Charles died; someone with strong character, someone who is pretty self-confident (like I am), and someone who is compassionate and has a spirituality about them. I think that combination – that kind of a person – would understand that I wrote this book completely in grief. So if I was dating it would be a very different time in my life, and I hope that they would admire that love is forever. Just because somebody dies it doesn’t mean that you stop loving them, and what I was trying to do was honor him…honor my son’s father. I will always miss him.
LIJS: You describe him in such detail and as such a gentleman and hero. Hearing all this would make anyone miss him, without ever having met him!
DC: I can’t tell you the number of women who have contacted me saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I have such a crush on Charles!” I am sharing him with a lot of women now.
LIJS: You have shared your stories of Charles with the world, as well as a lot of his art, which is now touring the country. He was obviously very talented. You have the original bowed “Angel” piece hanging over Jordan’s crib; he gave copies of that to those he loved just before he left for Iraq. Are there other pieces that you won’t part with?
DC: Yes. He drew a piece for me for my birthday. Oh my gosh! It’s just beautiful… it’s called “True Hearts.” It’s kind of abstract; it’s an image of Charles, and then me, leaning over the back of him, ripping his shirt off. I love it!
LIJS: There were some issues with people assuming you were Jordan’s nanny because of his light skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. Has that let up a bit now that he looks so much like you?
DC:Well, he still has the blue eyes and the blonde hair, but now that we have been spending so much time here the beach in Ocean Grove he has a tan. We find the ocean so healing. That’s what drew us here.
*To learn more about Dana and Jordan please visit: www.ajournalforjordan.com
Tao in NYC & Doran’s in Ocean Grove for the lobster pizza!
rude, insensitive people
Three People You’d Like to Have Dinner With:
Denzel Washington’s wife Pauletta, God, and Charles
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