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Catching up with the author of 'Journal For Jordan,' a memoir turned movie

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What does it mean to love someone whom you may not have in your life for long? What does it mean to love someone who loves you and the child you share but who also loves something else? And that something else - his soldiers, his job, his country - are the very reasons your days together will be painfully few. That is the powerful dilemma former New York Times reporter Dana Canedy explored in her 2008 memoir, "A Journal For Jordan," based on the 200-plus pages of life lessons her fiance, Army First Sergeant Charles Monroe King, wrote for their son Jordan in the event that he did not make it back from serving in Iraq.

Tragically, he didn't make it back. He was killed by a roadside bomb in October 2006, just a month before he was due to come home. But his words live on in the book and now in a new movie, which was directed by Denzel Washington and stars Michael B. Jordan and Chante Adams. I first talked with Dana Canedy when her book was published, so I couldn't resist the chance to speak with her again about the movie. And she is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on everything.

DANA CANEDY: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. It sort of feels like bookends from the first time...

MARTIN: Yeah.

CANEDY: ...I spoke with you.

MARTIN: So how are you? I mean, on the one hand, you know, Denzel Washington, Michael B. Jordan, the gorgeous Chante Adams telling your story. I mean, I'm imagining red carpets and photo shoots. On the one - so that's on the one hand. It seems so fabulous. But I'm thinking, on the other hand, this is like living it all over again. I mean, I'm just imagining it's, in a way, like disturbing a scab that might have finally healed. So how are you?

CANEDY: That's exactly right. First of all, thank you for asking that. I'm trying to focus on the blessings. And I've said for years that it's hard to notice when you're in the beginning of grief, but even in tragedy and grief, there are blessings. And to have come out of the other end of this with these amazing gifts, the gift of the book and the gift of the movie and the gift of my beautiful son who's now 15 - I try to focus on that. But there are parts of it - you're absolutely right - that have not been easy.

MARTIN: Like what, if you don't mind sharing that?

CANEDY: Well, so we spent a day shooting scenes in Arlington Cemetery, and second only to the day Charles died and to his funeral, it was the hardest day of my life. I probably should not have been there. I had nightmares for a couple weeks after. It was devastating and took me right back to a place that I had healed from. However, it was all worth it to be able to be involved with this movie, which, you know, there are difficult parts to the movie, but it's also, I hope, inspirational and funny in certain places and really is a testament both to power of enduring love and to the sacrifice that our men and women in uniforms make and their families make every day.

MARTIN: Would you remind us why you wanted to tell the story to begin with? For folks who haven't read the book or haven't seen the movie yet, it is a lovely story. I mean, it's got everything. It's an opposites-attract story. It's a - but why did you want to tell the story to begin with?

CANEDY: I have very selfish reasons for doing this. I needed - you know, when Charles died, he had written this 200-page journal that he left for our son. And I was so proud of it and proud of him that, primarily, I just wanted to share it and because I was so proud of him. But in addition to that, I needed something to do with my grief. And as I say to my son and as I've said in various speeches, you know, since the book came out so many years ago that when you're going through something difficult, no matter what it is, you can either channel it into something negative or positive. And I needed to find something to do to help me through, and I wanted my son to have even more of a understanding of his father.

But beyond all of that, I knew I was the only national journalist in the country at the time who'd gotten that knock at the door where the military shows up and tells you, you know, that the person you love just made the ultimate sacrifice. And I wanted Americans to know viscerally what that was like. And so I first wrote about it in the New York Times, and it became a book.

MARTIN: The story, the book, the movie, they - it does a lot of different things. I mean, it is a powerful story about a father's love for his son, and I think many people feel there haven't been enough of those. But it is also a story about duty...

CANEDY: That's absolutely right.

MARTIN: ...And, you know, honor and what that means. And those are not words that a lot of people - you know, that everybody doesn't talk about very much. And, you know, I'm thinking about the fact that this movie arrives at a moment just after, you know, we've had this ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

CANEDY: Yes.

MARTIN: We've had people who call themselves patriots attacking the Capitol, trying to overturn a lawful election. And I'm just wondering what all that brings up for you. I mean, could part of you - you know, you grew up in a military family, but you are right. I mean, you are one of the very few national journalists who's had that 360-degree experience, right?

CANEDY: Well, you know, I think one of the things it brings up for me and, I hope, for others is a reminder of what patriotism really looks like. You know, Charles was an African American soldier, but he didn't fight for Black America. He fought for all of America. And he also fought and died for us to be able to both love each other and disagree with each other. And so, you know, I tell my son all the time that we're all going to die, but so few people die a hero's death. And we miss him every day. It still hurts. It really still hurts. But I'm proud of him, the way he lived and the way he died. And if anything else, it's just a reminder that, you know, we should be the United States of America, and if we can't be that, we ought to change our name.

MARTIN: I want to go back to what we talked about at the beginning, your memoir. The movie is a meditation on the powerful pull of different loves. You were very honest in the book about the fact that Charles wasn't there for the birth of your son because he had elected to stay with his soldiers. The mission that he was on in which he was killed was one that he didn't have to be on, and that has to hurt. And yet you have so much pride in him, and you loved him so much.

And I'm just - you know, I think it's - we're in a moment, I think, when it's kind of hard for people to balance two thoughts in their heads at the same time. And - but I did want to ask, you know, these years on, how are you holding those two thoughts in your head at the same time or in your heart, frankly, that he loved you and he also loved his work, and his love of his work in a way took him from you? Can you help us with that?

CANEDY: It's frustrating. There's a part of me that's still incredibly angry with him because he did not have to go on that last mission. When he told me he wasn't coming home for Jordan's birth - and he had promised me he was going to do that - I don't think I've ever been angrier with anybody in my life. And there were a lot of things that I wanted to say to him in anger that I couldn't because I thought, OK, if he dies tomorrow, this can't be the last thing he's heard me say. We eventually worked through that. Our son was born, and we were very, very, very happy. But, no, it wasn't - it was very tough. And the reason I was so honest about that, both in the book and in the movie, is I want people to understand the kinds of things that military families have to work through every day.

MARTIN: That was Dana Canedy, author of "A Journal For Jordan: A Story Of Love And Honor." She's now a senior vice president at Simon and Schuster, and the movie, which is based on the book, is in theaters and available on streaming now. Dana Canedy, thank you so much for talking with us once again. My best wishes to you and your family.

CANEDY: Thank you. Thank you for having me, and best wishes to you and your family as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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