COLUMBIA – Every night, Sherry Sanders called her son Ronald “Corey” Brown on the phone to “give him a push in the right direction and give him a positive mindset.”
“Every night, I say to him, ‘Be safe, I love you and always do the right thing,’” Sanders said during an interview Thursday morning.
The nightly phone call was a mother’s psychic tether to a son who, she admits, didn’t always make the right choices and paid for them with his years at juvenile detention centers.
On Sunday, Sanders’ phone was broken and she didn’t get to make the call. It weighs heavily on her now.
Early Monday morning, Sanders’ middle son Corey Brown, 18, died after he was shot during what police say was a botched robbery attempt.
On Thursday evening, more than 100 family members, friends and neighbors — some of them standing shoulder to shoulder in the tiny alcove of the Fifth Street Christian Church in central Columbia — listened to stories about Corey Brown and told some of their own. Some wore T-shirts bearing a picture of Corey with his 1 1/2-year-old son. Many of them bore inscriptions — pet names or favorite phrases.
“We like to think that life is long and that we will have an opportunity down the line to do things differently. Corey was making that step, but never got the chance,” the Rev. James Kimbro said during the three-hour memorial service.
There were plans, said his mother, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in criminal justice from Columbia College. He was working on getting his GED and had said he would enroll at Moberly Area Community College in August. An aspiring rap artist, he’d recorded several CDs and had a shot at a record deal with a new label in Sedalia.
He needed money badly. He wanted to take care of his son, Jailen, and his girlfriend, Brittany Gundo, and he wanted the three of them to live together.
“Corey loved his family with everything he had in him, but he loved his friends just as much,” Sanders said. She talked about the “ride together, die together” philosophy of her son and his friends. It worried her.
It was a powerful brotherhood, one that was spoken of often and tearfully during the service by his friends, such as 18-year-old Spuddy Taylor, who remembered how he and Corey Brown met. They were in fifth grade, and a group of guys was beating up on Spuddy. Corey showed up and pushed the guys out of the way.
He liked the image of invincibility, his older brother, Demond Thorpe, told the congregation. But it was a bit of a façade. Thorpe, 22, talked about how his brother would sneak cash to homeless people as he walked by, reluctant to let his friends see his soft side.
But some people got to see his playful side, his lack of vanity. His mother said Corey once grew an Afro so huge that his stepfather didn’t want to be seen with him. He let his friend’s little girls bunch his unruly hair into pigtails for a laugh.
Sanders wanted to let her son be himself. But it wasn’t easy.
That was part of her impassioned message to the people who gathered Thursday night to remember her son — to put love above judgment. “You don’t always have to accept everything about your children, but always embrace them and tell your children that you love them,” she said.
She told the mourners her son’s death wasn’t senseless if it changed one life. And it has, she said — that of a young man whose mother approached her after Corey’s death and said that her own son had vowed to change his life.
As family and friends took their turns at the microphone, Corey Brown’s energetic toddler slipped into the minister’s chair, climbed the stairs and wriggled in the arms of his mother, his grandmother, aunts, uncles — anyone willing and close at hand.
The wriggling stopped when the music played at the end of the service, a song from a father to his son about striving for something better.