Michael Brown Jr. hadn't wanted a party on his birthday. He hadn't wanted to have people over. Wait until I'm 21, he told his father, and then go all-out.
Nonetheless, his friends did gather in his honor, but not for a reason any of them wanted: Less than an hour into his March 13 birthday, his 20th, Brown was shot to death after leaving a downtown nightclub.
Within hours, while Brown lay at VCU Medical Center, it seemed to his father that a hundred people had gathered on the hospital's 11th floor. And in the coming days, his grandmother's three-story Highland Park home was overtaken by two dozen grieving friends who shared memories and slept on floors. "They wouldn't go home," recalls his father, Michael Brown Sr.
Weeks later, the house is dark and quiet, and Brown's family has been left to ponder the reality that Brown, who was a church usher more likely to be found playing Xbox than hanging in a club, is gone. The killer remains at large.
And then there's the painful matter of Brown's college acceptance letter.
Two days after his son was taken off a respirator and his heart and kidneys were harvested to save others' lives, a letter arrived from Virginia University of Lynchburg notifying the younger Brown that he'd been accepted for the fall. Brown — known to his dad as Mike-Mike, his mom as Little Mike and friends simply as Mike — planned to study business and possibly become a sports announcer.
The family had to notify the school that its only son would not be enrolling, all because of a stranger's bullet. "He said, 'I'm going to make y'all proud,'" says his father, choking up. "And they just swept him away."
He's less tearful when proudly showing off the photos of his son that line the walls, cover end tables, and sit atop a Wurlitzer piano that the Little Mike liked to play. There's his Henrico High School graduation picture, in which he leans forward in a green cap and gown, chin resting on his hand. One photo, a gift from Mike's friends, has been altered so that Mike appears to wear angel's wings. Yet another shows a chubby-cheeked, sweater-clad preschooler mugging for the camera. Pointing out these and others, his father shares that his son once modeled for Olan Mills.
"I'm not putting him on a pedestal," Brown says. "He was a hard-headed boy at times."
While Mike-Mike was the nickname that stuck, at times his father called him Pookarooka or My Sashee-Baby Boy — endearing terms that seemed to come from nowhere but just somehow fit. His grandmother, Phyllis White, remembers a sweet boy who wasn't any trouble, whether toddler or teenager. He loved to pretend to drive as a child, she says, scraping his knees while he crawled around with a toy steering wheel in hand, making car noises. He was the youngest of her nine grandchildren. "My last one," White says. "He was special."
As he grew older, he loved sports and music. He played football and basketball, took piano lessons and learned to play the saxophone. A tidy child who always made his bed, he also helped his father with his catering business.
The elder Brown hoped to leave the business to his son — even going so far as to change the name from Mike's Cuisine to Mike and Mike's Catering, but the young man didn't show much interest in cooking. But oh, he loved to eat, and eat well. Lamb chops, fried oysters, duck, crab omelets and Belgian waffles were some of his favorites. "He wasn't a McDonald's boy," his dad says.
After high-school graduation, the younger Brown earned his bricklaying license, which he used to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. "Just in case college didn't work," his father says. "He had his ducks in a row."
Instead of making tuition payments, the family will buy a headstone. His father planned to have one made that reads, You were my best. But first, he must wait for the ground at Riverview Cemetery to settle, as is custom for newly filled graves. "I didn't know about that," he says. "There are so many things I'm learning." S