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“ 'Hi, Mom, I'm glad to hear that you are still focused on your ministry. You are truly my inspiration. ...' ”
She pauses, closes her eyes, tries to stop her tears. Even her grandchildren, restive in their parents' arms, grow still. After a long silence, she resumes:
“ 'I want to say thank you for raising me to be a man. You never let me quit, and you never let me settle for less. ... I'm glad you accept my dream. And I'm also happy to finally say, “I made my mother proud.” ' ”
She folds the letter back between the pages.
“That's what he wanted to do,” she said. “He wanted to make his mother proud.”
Army Spc. Andre Craig Jr. was just two weeks away from his 24th birthday when he left his mother's house on New Haven's Rosette Street for the last time in June 2007.
On leave from duty in Baghdad, he had come home in May to see his family and to meet his daughter, Taylor Craig, who was born while he was in Iraq.
He had grown up here and on Carmel Street, two of New Haven's tougher neighborhoods, with his mother, brothers and sisters, and he had shunned the shoals of crime and drugs to chase his dream.
“It was always his dream to go into the Army,” Joyce Craig said, “to fight for the people. And I asked him, I said, 'Why the Army?' He said, 'Ma, it's my dream.'
“He wanted to go into the Army for college, to get money for college, and he wanted his family to live and have better than what they had. ... He didn't want us to struggle to pay bills.”
Knowing well her son's determination, she gave him permission to go. Her middle child, the one they called Dre, whom the others called the Momma's Boy, went off to war.
He left behind two older sisters: Valencia Cook, 31, and Debra Russell, 29; and three brothers: Michael Cook, 26, Jonathan Craig, 22, and Matthew Craig, 20. He also had a half brother and half sister, 27-year-old Andre Brown, and Nashimma Williams, 29.
His sister Debra muses about the special bond Andre had with their mother.
“Every parent has ... a child they have a closer bond to. My sister and I were more independent, and Michael was more independent, whereas Andre ... he was joined to my mom's hip a lot.”
“He was a momma's boy,” agrees his other sister, Valencia.
They laugh to remember how, when the sons and son-in-law Julian Russell went bowling last May, their mother insisted she go along.
“Dre said, 'Ma, there ain't no girls going.' I said, 'I don't care, I'm going with you. ... I'm gonna go and I'm gonna kick you all butts.'”
The night got wild when her sons began stacking up the shot glasses and bowling two balls at a time down the same lane.
“So I really had to take them out of the place, because they were cutting up,” Joyce Craig said. “And they walked outside busting out laughing. And I said, 'That's not funny, because you were disrespectful.' ”
Russell said that when Andre came home they decided they weren't going to let anything spoil their fun. “Life's too short,” he said. “You never know.' ”
Certainly, Andre had had his eyes opened.
He wrote to his mother telling her of the horrors visited on the Iraqis.
“I'm glad that I'm down here and I can help them,” he wrote. “All I ask for you to ask the church to do is to pray for God's mercy on these people.”
And when he came home it was as if the sun itself had broken through the clouds.
“He came home and he just showed everybody how much he loved us,” Julian Russell said. “He came home and did everything for everybody. Cooked, cleaned. He came to show love.
“The funny thing is you wondered where all his love came from. You wondered how this man, that I'm older than, that I can look up to him. Because he chose to go where I didn't want to go. I joined in 2000, and, believe me, if I'd known I was going to go to Iraq in 2004, I wouldn't have joined. He was a braver man than I will ever be.”
Debra Russell added, “When my husband was in Iraq, my brother took care of me. I was pregnant with my daughter and ... Andre would take my car, pick me up, bring me to my doctor's appointment, so much so that in the beginning, before they knew my husband was in Iraq, they thought he was my husband.”
“He was the first person to see my daughter walk,” Julian said. “He was the first person to be there and encourage her and to give her a nickname. He loved my daughter a lot.”
And he was smitten, they say, when he learned he had a daughter of his own.
“He had wanted a child to leave behind in case something happened,” Joyce Craig said. But he had had no children with his wife, Shawntia Craig, who could not be reached to comment for this story.
So when Joyce Craig told Andre that a former girlfriend had had a child by him, he asked his mother to go see the baby.
“When I walked in the house, the baby was sitting in a chair,” Joyce Craig said. “And I said, 'Oh, my God!' It looked like I had Andre all over again. It was like Andre was in that chair.”
Soon the whole family was spoiling Taylor, especially when Andre came home on leave.
“And when we went to court to get her name changed to his last name,” Joyce Craig said, “the judge said, 'Do you want to do a DNA test?' And Dre said, 'No, because I know that this is my child.' That was the day before he left to go back to Iraq.”
Andre had always loved children.
“He would leave the house at 8 in the morning; he wouldn't come back till dark time. He'd play basketball all day with my son. He would play ball in the street with the kids,” Valencia Cook said.
“And that's how he ended up having a close relationship with the children on this street, and that's how they ended up naming the corner of Wilson and Rosette Street after him.”
After Andre's death, Joyce Craig said, she learned that “there were times when some parents would have troubles with their kids, and they'd call Andre, and Andre would go and talk to them. ...”
“And I know that Andre wanted to leave a legacy to let people know that just because you live in the 'hood, doesn't mean that you can't fulfill your dream and be successful.”
She remembers that whenever she would ask Andre about Iraq, he would assure her, “Ma, I love my job.”
And yet, when it was time for him to return, “we all sat in here, and we had a prayer, and he broke down and cried,” she said. “He cried so hard, as if he knew that one day he might not come back.”
July 25, 2007, the day Andre Craig died, was one week after his 24th birthday. It was also the day of Valencia Cook's baby shower, the day — three hours before the shower — her water broke.
“He called me at the house,” she said, “and I said, 'My water broke,' and he said, 'I told you you were gonna have that baby 'round my birthday.' And the next day we got the call. ... I was in labor when he passed away.”
And so Valencia Cook named her baby Andre.
Joyce Craig still struggles to make sense of it all.
“He was just willing to die ... for his country, for his family, for his friends. I still cannot get the grips of that,” she said.
“I'll wake up in the morning. I'll say, 'Hi, Andre. I love you. I miss you. I wish that I could see you.' ... I was angry at him because he went into the Army and he got killed. And I was angry because I never did think I was going to lose my Dre. ...
“But then when Dre got killed, I had to go and shut myself in, because I knew I couldn't be around nobody. Because I knew that I wouldn't have been a very nice person, because I was angry at Bush, I was angry at the Army, I was angry at Dre. So to keep myself, I had to go shut myself in and pray and read my Bible. ...
“He didn't die on the street behind drugs, you know? He died with a purpose, and he left a legacy. 'This was my purpose, to be successful. And this was my legacy, to let other kids know that just because you are poor or you live in a bad neighborhood, doesn't mean that you can't be successful.' ...
“So constantly thinking on that, it helps me more ... and my anger at him is not like it used to be. I'll tell him, I'll sit and say, 'I'm proud of you, and you are my hero.'
“I just want to say to other children, if it's not your dream, and it's not really in your bones, don't do it. ... Now is not the time to do it, because so many of our children are dying in this war.”