01/11/17 05:36 AM EST
By TERRY GOLWAY
|New York City Police Officer Steven McDonald, his wife Patti, and son, Conor. | Stuart Ramson/Invision for Kelly Cares Foundation/AP Images|
He could no longer feel the soft touch of human warmth, not since that terrible afternoon in Central Park more than 30 years ago, but Steven McDonald knew it was there, all around him. He could see it. He could sense it.
He could see love and decency and humanity in the eyes and soul of every one of us. He could see it even in the eyes of a teenager who fired three bullets into his body for no reason other than perhaps he thought it would be quite something to see a police officer die in front of him.
Thirty years ago, Steven McDonald was a 29-year-old cop, husband and expectant father. Life was good for the handsome, strapping young man from Long Island who patrolled the streets of New York just as his father had, just as great-aunt had in the 1920s. He had been on the job for about two years, and like all cops, Steven McDonald quietly hoped that the mayor would never have to speak at his funeral because mayors generally speak at funerals for officers killed in the line of duty.
The nice life that seemed in store for Officer McDonald changed when he encountered 15-year-old Shavod Jones in Central Park in the late afternoon of July 12, 1986. There had been reports of a robbery in the park, and McDonald and his partner were questioning Jones and two companions, one 13, the other 14, about what they might know or might have seen. Jones pulled a gun and shot the cop in the head, throat, and back. One of the bullets severed McDonald’s spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, and in the long history of the New York Police Department, no officer had ever survived such grievous injuries.
The mayor, Ed Koch, rushed to Bellevue Hospital when he learned that yet another officer was down — McDonald was the 12th officer shot that year, and it was only July. Koch called his friend Cardinal John O’Connor later that night as the McDonald family gathered to pray and hold tightly to each other. “Your Eminence,” he said, “I’ve never called you under these circumstances and I don’t want to disturb your rest, but there’s an enormous tragedy here. This young cop is going to die.”
Somehow the young cop did not die. Somehow he forgave Shavod Jones. Somehow he summoned the will and the strength not simply to survive but to remain in uniform, to speak to cops and civilians about forgiveness and faith, to bring together old enemies in the north of Ireland, to testify about the power of determination, to remind us that we do indeed have better angels and perhaps we would all be better off if we remembered that on occasion.
Three decades later, there surely will be multiple mayors from multiple eras at Steven McDonald’s funeral on Friday in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the blessing is that this funeral is taking place in 2017 and not in 1986, when for many hours and days it seemed a certainty.
He died on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack, and if news of his death seemed to make little impression on young New Yorkers, perhaps that is understandable. He had been fading for some years, no longer the very public presence that he once was at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or at midnight mass on Christmas Eve in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But for a generation of New Yorkers, the mention of Steven McDonald’s name brought back memories of a time and a place when it seemed as though the city’s better angels had left for some other place and were not coming back.
Fifteen years after McDonald was shot, Ed Koch could still not talk about that night in Bellevue without weeping, as he did during an interview in early 2001. He was not alone: The sight of McDonald in uniform in his wheelchair, controlling it himself by breathing into a panel, was enough to bring many a New Yorker to tears, and with good reason. While the public Steven McDonald spoke about forgiveness and faith, privately, the dependence and the indignities of his life took their toll, as anyone might have suspected. In an interview in 2001, he spoke of a time when he thought seriously about killing himself, and he credited the intervention of Cardinal O’Connor and his wife, Patti, with stopping him.
“I remember him saying to me that my life was a prayer,” McDonald said of O’Connor.
It was a prayer uttered at a time of despair, and today and tomorrow and especially on Friday it will be a prayer of hope and a prayer of thanksgiving, recited by men and women in the pews of the great cathedral who will forever consider themselves privileged to have shared a city with a man named Steven McDonald, who could feel nothing except love and decency.