NYPD Detective Steven McDonald died on Jan. 10. In the following days, his life was commemorated throughout our nation and in places around the world for his advocacy of forgiveness and reconciliation. McDonald lived for more than 30 years as a quadriplegic, after being shot in the line of duty at age 29 by a teenage assailant in Central Park. His wife, Patti Ann, was 23 at the time of the shooting, and she was three months pregnant with their son, Conor. At Conor’s baptism, McDonald wrote of the young man who shot him in a statement read by Patti Ann, “I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life.” This interview, conducted on behalf of The Christophers, and published here with permission, took place two weeks after Steven McDonald’s death.
GS – The day Steven passed on, your son Conor left a moving Facebook message for his father, accompanied by a beautiful photo of the two of them pressing their heads against each other in a quiet moment. “I’ll see you on the other side, Daddio,” Conor wrote. “I’ll love you forever.” How important was Conor to Steven’s ability to persevere after the shooting and to the family life you would live together for the next 30 years?
Patti Ann – It was a blessing that I was pregnant with Conor. And it gave Steven, especially those months after the shooting, a reason to live. I told him, “You have a child that’s going to be born in the next six months and you need to be here to see and raise your child.” And Steven held on, thank God, for those six months and six months turns into a year and that turns into 30 years. We always made a point of celebrating milestones. Steven was there to see Cardinal O’Connor christen Conor, to see Conor graduate from high school and then Conor graduate from college. The picture I have of Steven at Conor’s graduation, I have to say, is one of the nicest pictures of Steven with a smile on his face and how proud he was of Conor receiving his degree from Boston College. Then the smile was a bit bigger when he graduated from the police academy. Within this past year Conor was promoted to detective and then was promoted to sergeant. So for Steven to witness so many milestones in Conor’s life is something. If you had told me 30 years ago, when the doctor’s told me Steven’s prognosis, I would never have imagined that we’d have the life we did these 30-plus years.
GS – There was joy.
Patti Ann – Oh, there was joy. There was more joy than there was sorrow or sadness, honestly. I mean there was sadness and frustration because of what happened to Steven, what he had to live with every day. But definitely I can tell you there was more joy than there was sadness.
GS – In the eulogy he delivered, Conor said of the two of you, “Their marriage was true love. My parents created the most phenomenal life out of such darkness.” His mention of you brought the congregation to their feet for prolonged applause. You and Steven clearly inspired your son, and it seems to me that your family is a good example of how we can all support each other in times of tragedy. In a piece he once wrote recalling the days after the shooting, Steven tells of how you collapsed to the floor and cried when you were given his prognosis. It was just a few days later that the media wanted a statement, and you said that you would trust God to do what was best for your family. Steven credited your trust in God with saving his life. What happened in those few days that enable you to emerge with such a strong approach to life that would lead to 30 years of perseverance and accomplishment from your family?
Patti Ann – After that moment you just described where I fell to the floor, I remember going home to our church and there’s a saying on the wall that reads, “I am with you always until the end of time.” And I just remember getting a lot of strength from that saying, and when I went back to the hospital and Cardinal O’Connor visited Steven and told Steven that he was going to offer Mass, I know it was our faith, as Steven said, to trust in God. And it was our faith in God that enabled us to support each other no matter what happened. Conor took a video this past Christmas Eve, and he approached Steven, who was sitting with our nephew, and he said, “So, Pops, what are your words of inspiration?” Steven said “I just told our nephew Patrick, ‘Get close to God.’” And that’s what it was all about these past 30 years, getting close to God and continuing to be close to God and trusting in God. And I’m not saying every day was great. There were hard days. Just like Christ when he lived for 33 years here on earth and the trials that he went through. But having our faith is truly what brought us to where we are. And when Steven was brought to the hospital Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, we had Mass and it was very reminiscent of when he was first injured. We had Mass in his room Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and every day constantly, the Rosary, Divine Mercy. And that’s just how it was when he was in the hospital in the beginning. We had Mass in his room every single day. And so the Eucharist, our faith is what has sustained us and will continue to sustain us.
GS – On that note, he said that through the suffering he endured he felt closer to heaven than he had ever felt before. Clearly, you both led each other. You were a beacon to him. He credits your faith with saving his life. But I’m just wondering what you may have learned from him about heaven because he grew so close to Christ. Did he teach you about heaven?
Patti Ann – He taught me about our faith, that we are just here on earth for a short time, and that eternal life is when we die and go to heaven. He spoke about this to people and he said it to me. He was not afraid. And he believed the suffering he endured here was helping other people, which I think it did. And he knew that by his suffering here that there was something better after death.
GS – After the accident, you grew closer, is that right?
Patti Ann – Oh, yes.
GS – How can people wrap their mind around that—that this kind of suffering can bring people closer together? A lot of people could be destroyed by it.
Patti Ann – I think respecting and loving each other. I’ve been reflecting a lot on this these past couple of weeks and maybe we didn’t have the physical relationship that most married couples do, but it was more than that and I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about the vows that you take. In good times and bad, in sickness and in health. And we both took those vows very seriously, and I love Steven. For what he says I did for him, he did for me. He supported me. He encouraged me to be the best that I could be in whatever I wanted to do. He was my biggest cheerleader. Even sitting in that chair, like I said, he did more for me than any able-bodied person could have done for me.
GS – In spite of the shooting and lifelong paralysis for him and the suffering it brought your family, you’ve lived lives of service to the community as well. You’re mayor now and you’ve spent many years coaching tennis.
Patti Ann – Yes, I’ve been mayor of our town for 10 years. I’ve coached Sacred Heart tennis over in Hempstead for about 12 years, and Steven and I coached a girls’ basketball team, and a softball team. We both felt very strongly and I still feel strongly, as does Conor, that many people were so supportive and loving and kind to us and have been through the years. We’ve been given so much, so to give back and to serve people is very important. Steven going around and speaking in schools and sharing his story and doing whatever he could do for people was something very important to us as a family.
GS – Do you think there’s a lesson in that for families to know that in spite of the suffering they may endure that actually living a life of service beyond your own troubles can improve things?
Patti Ann – It does. It helps.
GS – It seems like it gave him a mission in terms of what he did.
Patti Ann – By sharing his story, our story, it helped other people. They would open up and share whatever they’re going through, and we wound up helping each other. Steven’s disability was very visible. Unfortunately, there are people where the struggles they deal with aren’t as visible as Steven’s. And seeing him being able to struggle visibly helped them with whatever they were dealing with. And when he talked about his struggle, they were able to open up about their own struggles.
GS – His message about forgiveness has made an impact on the world, but I’m wondering if you might share how that spirit of forgiveness that he carried in such a strong way influences family life.
Patti Ann – For him to forgive Shavod Jones was something he was given the grace and was able to accept. And as Conor said, Steven just didn’t forgive Shavod Jones 30 years ago, he forgave Shavod Jones every day. That was something he had to do in order to go on with his life. And Steven, if he hadn’t forgiven Shavod, he would never have been able to go on and do what he did for those 30 years. With that said, there’s always family dynamics where there’s always something going on. But Steven would always say, “I forgive you but sin no more” and that’s an important thing. If someone hurts you, you forgive them, but you don’t want to continue getting hurt by that person. It’s hard to keep forgiving someone if they continue hurting you over and over and over again. So Steven would forgive family, friends, whoever, but he would always say, “I forgive you, but sin no more.” But Steven wasn’t perfect, either, and he would be the first one to say that. So he would ask forgiveness too.
GS – Did his understanding of the importance of mercy make him a better person to be around? Did it affect the way he interacted with you and others close to him?
Patti Ann – I would like to think, and I think he would, that he treated everyone as he wanted to be treated, and he treated everyone as if they were the only person there. He gave you his undivided attention. When you were with Steven, he made you feel special and I think that’s one reason people liked being around him.
GS – He had a good sense of humor?
Patti Ann – Yes, he did. He loved funny movies. He loved watching “Seinfeld.” Whenever we were out and about he would say, “Oh, that’s a Seinfeld episode.” For example this New Year’s Eve that just passed, he and I and the nurse, Cathy, we did the Midnight Run in Central Park. They have a four-mile run, and right at the stroke of midnight they do fireworks and they have DJs and they give out cider, and it’s a very fun event, and he’s riding around Central Park, making comments, joking with the different officers, telling everyone, “Happy New Year! Happy New Year!” And he actually beat a lot of people, believe it or not, because he has fast pace with his wheelchair, and when we crossed the finish line the DJs were announcing different people coming through, and the DJs were saying, “Go Rangers, go Rangers,” when Steven crossed, because he liked the Rangers. So, yes, he had fun and he had a very good sense of humor.
GS – He was a believer in heaven and Conor reflected that influence when he said, “I’ll see you on the other side, Daddio.” Is there this hope of seeing him again?
Patti Ann – Of course. As Catholics, that’s what we believe in. That’s what gives the hope. We’re sad for the people who are no longer here. They’re happy because they’re no longer in pain. But we Catholics, that’s what we believe that this is temporary, us being here, that our happiness is after. We’re striving to be the best that we can so that when we go to heaven we get in.
GS – Is there a hope that when you see Steven again, he’ll be healed?
Patti Ann – In my mind Steven’s already walking. I believe in my heart that Steven is no longer in pain, that he’s free of the wheelchair and that he is happy.
(At the end of our conversation Patti Ann shared the last note Steven wrote to her. She explained that he would write short notes to her by holding a pen in his mouth, and he might sometimes quote a song that he liked. This note includes a quote from the Belinda Carlisle song “Mad About You.”)
Detective Steven McDonald’s last note to his wife, Patti Ann, read:
My dearest one, the day I fell in love with you was the best day of my life. Mad about you. Lost in your eyes. Mad about you. You and I. Love, Steven