The Marine mom came into St. Andrew’s Church in downtown Manhattan on Friday afternoon just as the priest was calling for the Sign of Peace.
The midday Mass is usually over by that hour, and Elaine Brower only intended to light a candle for all those serving their country in this time of war. These notably include her only son, 22-year-old Cpl. James Brower.
James is with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which reportedly is making preparations to head for Iraq. Elaine fears he will be going along even though his enlistment is nearing an end.
“I said, ‘Just tell them your mother said you can’t go now,’ ” Elaine recalled joking over the phone last week. “He said, ‘You know, Ma, I really want to go.’ ”
Elaine had responded as a mother might.
“I said, ‘James, what are you, out of your mind?’ ” Elaine recounted. “I said, ‘Don’t raise your hand and volunteer. You have all these plans.’ ”
His enlistment is to end officially in February, but with accrued leave he could be home next month. He was slated to join the next class at the NYPD’s Police Academy and follow his father onto the force. He had figured on enrolling at college in the meantime.
But he was still a Marine and he responded as a Marine might.
“He’s like, ‘I gotta go. We gotta get these guys,’ ” Elaine recalled. “I said, ‘James, You did it. You helped. It’s okay.’ ”
She meant he had already done his bit, when he was among the very first Marines to swoop into Afghanistan in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. She had spent two months sleeping with a set of black, plastic rosary beads that he had found on the floor at catechism class on Staten Island a decade before.
“We will be doing raids and going through caves and mountains looking for bad guys. Just to let you guys know,” he had written in a Christmas card that year.
James had been back at Camp Pendleton, Calif., when preparations began for the invasion of Iraq. Elaine had feared she would have to take out those black rosary beads again, but chance had kept him stateside.
“I was so happy he got out of that one,” Elaine said.
Then, word came last week that 20,000 Marines were being dispatched to replace Army troops returning from Iraq. James’ unit was on the roster to go and Elaine figured she might well be getting out those rosary beads even if he did not volunteer.
“When they say the 1st MEU [Marine Expeditionary unit], they mean all of them,” Elaine said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Minus James Brower, Elaine Brower’s kid. Don’t send him.’ ”
She suggested to James that if he went to Iraq he could very well be gone for a year. His enlistment would simply be extended.
“I said, ‘Once you’re over there . . .’ ” Elaine recalled.
Meanwhile, Elaine has been taking a few moments from her work at the city controller’s office around 1 p.m. each day and crossing the plaza from the Municipal Building to St. Andrew’s Church.
On Friday, her daily ritual of a candle and a prayer varied because the midday Mass extended beyond the usual time for some reason. She slipped into a back pew with a friend.
“Let us offer each other the Sign of Peace,” the priest said.
Elaine shook hands with two men well beyond military age.
“Peace be with you,” she said.
“Peace be with you,” each replied.
The Mass ended soon after and the two men passed with the others into the bright and bustling afternoon. The Marine mom stepped over to a figure of the Blessed Mother as she is said to have appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, in an earlier time of war.
‘A good heart’
Worshipers had already lit a half-dozen of the red electric candles set before the figure. Elaine made a donation and pressed a button atop a candle toward the front. She said a silent prayer in the dim stillness.
“God loves people like James,” her friend said.
“I hope so,” she said.
She had turned to leave.
“James has a good heart,” the friend said.
“They all have,” Elaine said.
She stepped from the church into the sun-splashed plaza.
“They have to,” she said. “To give up your life for your country . . .”
A crowd in business attire went past, and then came three cops in the uniform James hopes to wear.
“He has all these plans,” Elaine said.
Elaine then chanced to see seven Marines in the uniform her son now wore on dress occasions. They were coming from Police Headquarters, where there had been an early celebration of the Marine Corps’ birthday, which any Marine mom knows is Nov. 10.
The Marines strode on and Elaine returned to her office, where her colleagues include an Army mom whose son is in Iraq.
“She goes to church every day just like me,” Elaine said. “You can’t imagine losing your kid.”
As fate decides whether James will come home or go to war, his Marine mom will continue lighting candles in front of the Blessed Mother who knows too much about losing a son.
“What mothers go through,” Elaine said. “The moms understand.”