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An enduring morning ritual between mother and son | Helen Ubiñas

Elsa Alicea pours her coffee in a brown ceramic mug. Her son takes it with a little milk and sugar.

Elsa Alicea makes coffee in her Juniata home in Philadelphia on Friday, May 03, 2019.
Elsa Alicea makes coffee in her Juniata home in Philadelphia on Friday, May 03, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

She brings the coffee in a small silver thermos and sets it down while she greets her son.

Así, llegue,” Elsa Alicea says, announcing her arrival.

She pours herself a cup in a brown ceramic mug as she tidies up around him.

She’d made the coffee that morning, just the way her Puerto Rican mother had taught her and her mother’s mother had before that: a well-worn aluminum pot, a few scoops of ground Café Bustelo stirred in before draining the strong brew through a cloth strainer. She likes hers black. Her youngest son, Luis Martin Alicea, 29, gets his with a hint of sugar and milk. Not too much.

Some other time she would have asked him what he wanted in his omelet, or if maybe he preferred his other favorite, avena, a creamy oatmeal. But not today. Today, it’s the unbroken ritual of coffee between mother and son.

Martin, as she calls him, used to play baseball, well enough to go pro, she thinks, before the father of five turned most of his attention to music and started his own production company.

No matter how late he’d work into the night, there he’d be every morning at his parents’ Juniata door, looking for coffee and conversation. They do go hand and hand.

They’d talk about their nights, their plans for the day. She’d tell him to be careful, to come back for dinner. He’d ask after her asthma. Don’t overdo it, he’d say.

That November day in 2016 he told her he planned on getting a haircut — a little sooner than he’d usually go in for a trim, but he was heading into a busy stretch and wanted to get it out of the way.

A few hours later, a call: Someone had shot Martin outside the barbershop at North Sixth Street and Rising Sun Avenue.

She sped toward Temple University Hospital. On the way there, she saw a man running down the street, crazed. It was her husband, Victor. Get in the car, she yelled, but he wouldn’t stop, convinced that somehow his own legs could get him to the hospital, to his son, faster.

At the hospital she heard a staff member tell the mother of another man injured outside the barbershop that her son was OK.

They told the Aliceas only that someone would come talk to them as soon as they could.

Elsa went cold. Then, an unexpected emotion: an overwhelming feeling of peace. She took her husband to a corner of the waiting area.

“He’s gone,” she whispered. “I can feel it.”

“Please, please,” he cried. “Don’t say that.”

Later, in a small room in the hospital, they finally heard the words from the doctor: We did all we could.

For two months Elsa was numb. Then one morning she woke up, made coffee, and went to see her son.

Today, small silver thermos in hand, she stands by the tombstone with double hearts at Greenmount Cemetery and tells Martin that she’s going to a march against gun violence in a few days. She had special T-shirts made with an image of Martin playing baseball just for the occasion.

“You know that justice will come, Papi,” she reassures him. “I have faith. It will come. ... There will be justice for you and for everyone else who is waiting for it.”

No matter how long it takes, she tells her son, someone will answer for killing him before his 30th birthday and the birth of his youngest child, Neila, the same way someone had answered for the 2005 shooting death of the 25-year-old cousin he’s buried next to.

She gently pours a little coffee over his grave, then wipes his and his cousin’s markers clean as she does every day. “He always liked things tidy,” she says of Martin.

She saves the last sip for herself, “You didn’t leave much for me,” she says, with a small chuckle. And then she leans in to kiss his gravestone.

“Te amo,” she tells him. I love you. “Dios te bendiga." God bless you.

And then she grabs the thermos, looks up into the gray spring sky, and tells her son she’ll be back tomorrow.