He drew pictures of himself with angel wings. He left a set of his dog tags on a nightstand in my Manhattan apartment. He bought a tiny blue sweat suit for our baby to wear home from the hospital.
Then he began to write what would become a 200-page journal for our son, in case he did not make it back from the desert in Iraq.
For months before my fiancé, First Sgt. Charles Monroe King, kissed my swollen stomach and said goodbye, he had been preparing for the beginning of the life we had created and for the end of his own.
He boarded a plane in December 2005 with two missions, really — to lead his young soldiers in combat and to prepare our boy for a life without him.
'Dear son,' Charles wrote on the last page of the journal, 'I hope this book is somewhat helpful to you. Please forgive me for the poor handwriting and grammar. I tried to finish this book before I was deployed to Iraq. It has to be something special to you. I’ve been writing it in the states, Kuwait and Iraq.'
The journal will have to speak for Charles now. He was killed Oct. 14 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his armored vehicle in Baghdad. Charles, 48, had been assigned to the Army’s First Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, based in Fort Hood, Tex. He was a month from completing his tour of duty.
Never be ashamed to cry. No man is too good to get on his knee and humble himself to God. Follow your heart and look for the strength of a woman.
Charles tried to anticipate questions in the years to come. Favorite team? I am a diehard Cleveland Browns fan. Favorite meal? Chicken, fried or baked, candied yams, collard greens and cornbread. Childhood chores? Shoveling snow and cutting grass. First kiss? Eighth grade.
In neat block letters, he wrote about faith and failure, heartache and hope. He offered tips on how to behave on a date and where to hide money on vacation. Rainy days have their pleasures, he noted: Every now and then you get lucky and catch a rainbow.
Charles mailed the book to me in July, after one of his soldiers was killed and he had recovered the body from a tank. The journal was incomplete, but the horror of the young man’s death shook Charles so deeply that he wanted to send it even though he had more to say. He finished it when he came home on a two-week leave in August to meet Jordan, then 5 months old. He was so intoxicated by love for his son that he barely slept, instead keeping vigil over the baby.
Though as a black man he sometimes felt the sting of discrimination, Charles betrayed no bitterness. It’s not fair to judge someone by the color of their skin, where they’re raised or their religious beliefs, he wrote. Appreciate people for who they are and learn from their differences.
He had his faults, of course. Charles could be moody, easily wounded and infuriatingly quiet, especially during an argument. And at times, I felt, he put the military ahead of family.
He had enlisted in 1987, drawn by the discipline and challenges. Charles had other options — he was a gifted artist who had trained at the Art Institute of Chicago — but felt fulfilled as a soldier, something I respected but never really understood. He had a chest full of medals and a fierce devotion to his men.
Charles knew the perils of war. During the months before he went away and the days he returned on leave, we talked often about what might happen. In his journal, he wrote about the loss of fellow soldiers. Still, I could not bear to answer when Charles turned to me one day and asked, 'You don’t think I’m coming back, do you?' We never said aloud that the fear that he might not return was why we decided to have a child before we planned a wedding, rather than risk never having the chance.
But Charles missed Jordan’s birth because he refused to take a leave from Iraq until all of his soldiers had gone home first, a decision that hurt me at first. And he volunteered for the mission on which he died, a military official told his sister, Gail T. King. Although he was not required to join the resupply convoy in Baghdad, he believed that his soldiers needed someone experienced with them.
When Jordan is old enough to ask how his father died, I will tell him of Charles’s courage and assure him of Charles’s love. And I will try to comfort him with his father’s words.
God blessed me above all I could imagine, Charles wrote in the journal. I have no regrets, serving your country is great.
He had tucked a message to me in the front of Jordan’s journal. This is the letter every soldier should write, he said. For us, life will move on through Jordan. He will be an extension of us and hopefully everything that we stand for. ... I would like to see him grow up to be a man, but only God knows what the future holds."Dana Canedy, a Pulitzer price winner journalist on the ‘New York Times’, was engaged to First Sgt. Charles King, killed in action in October.I apologize for making us all return this fast to reality after the holidays, but this article hit a chord in me. As a father and grandfather, I tried to put myself in Sgt. King's place. But, in spite of the tragic beauty of his legacy to his son, I can't help thinking that being alive would have been a much better gift. "Serving your country is great", he wrote. Politicians love theses simplifications. Until people stop to analyze who or what are they really serving, many children will continue growing without their fathers due to war, stray bullets, traffic accidents, lack of medical help, avoidable diseases, poverty...
It would be great if everybody would think about the refrain in John Lennon's song. Seven words, and a truth so simple, but so difficult to make real: