At Home with the McDonalds
A family who used love and forgiveness to move past tragedy.
February 2014: The houses in Malverne look pretty. The snow lends a fairytale quality to the winter scene. Photographer Kit DeFever and I are wondering which one is the McDonalds’. The GPS brings us to a dead end street, but none of the four or five houses have numbers displayed in an obvious manner. There is not even a wheelchair ramp that would help with identification.
We’re a little early so we sit in Kit’s truck listening to country music as I try Patti Ann McDonald on the phone. No answer. But minutes later, I spot her waving from the open front door of a traditional Cape Cod-style home. She apologizes for her wet head. “I just got home from work and took a quick shower,” she says, her manner easy and welcoming.
The living room is a rectangular shape with comfortable couches, a fireplace, and an open kitchen at the far end. There is no hint that a handicapped person, let alone a quadriplegic ventilator-dependent person, lives here. And, indeed, Steven McDonald is not present, nor is his son Conor. “They are both at work; they should be here soon,” Patti Ann promises.
Even with wet hair she’s an attractive woman. Fit and lithe with a ready smile. She shows us around so that Kit can pick his spot and check his light meters. Patti’s first job was as an assistant to the style editor of Parents magazine. Helping with photo shoots was something she enjoyed. “This is where the nurses hang out,” she says of a room off the main living room. “It used to have a therapy mat and a bed but Steven didn’t want anything that reminded him of hospital so we changed it.”
Patti excuses herself to dry her hair and soon returns wearing light make-up and a stylish, dusky green wool jacket. Looking at her I wonder how she could have gone through what she did and still look so good. She was just 24, eight months married, and three months pregnant with Conor, when her husband was shot.
Steven was 29 and just shy of two years on the force, a handsome 6’2” on a routine patrol of Central Park. He stopped to question three youths about some bicycle robberies and one of them pulled a gun and shot him. Three bullets pierced his head and neck and one shattered his spine between the second and third vertebrae leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
Both Patti Ann and Steven grew up on Long Island – Patti in Malverne, where her father taught English at a local high school, Steven in nearby Rockville Centre. He was one of eight children and both his father and maternal grandfather were New York City cops. After a stint in the Navy, he followed in their path and joined the NYPD.
Steven and Patti were both good athletes. He played football. She still coaches her high school tennis team. They loved music and movies and plays, and they had their Irish families and Catholic faith in common.
On the day it happened, 28 years ago, on July 12, 1986, Patti Ann was visiting her sister Julie in Pennsylvania. The second eldest of the six Norris children, Julie was four years older and married to Kenny McGuire. Patti Ann remembers that they went out shopping. It was a hot summer’s day and she found some Halloween decorations on sale.
Steven had suggested the trip because he was going to a baseball game on Friday night and working the four to midnight shift the following day.
What he remembers about that Saturday is that he woke up not feeling so well. He wondered if he was coming down with the flu, or maybe it was the few beers he had at the baseball game?
In two years on the job he had not missed any days, and he wasn’t going to call in sick. Besides his regular shifts, he was working all the overtime he could manage in order to put money aside to buy a house. On July 12, he received his pay check for two weeks. It was just over $800, of that $200 was for overtime.
He and Patti Ann had been bickering about the fact that she saw so little of him because of the extra shifts he was working. He wanted to leave the apartment neat for her, but he figured he would have time to clean-up before she got back from her sister’s.
As things turned out, he never saw that apartment again.
Conor, Patti Ann and Steven’s son, arrived at the house before his dad. He no longer lives here. He’s 27 now and a police officer – he recently took the sergeant’s exam.
Handsome with a nice smile and his mother’s warmth, Conor is soon chatting to Kit about a photography class he took at Boston College. “I still have some of your photos,” his mother chimes in.
It was a tough decision to join the police force, Conor, who majored in history, admits. “There were people who created a path for me before I decided what I wanted to do. Individuals who wanted me to work on Wall Street or go to law school. But I did a year’s service with Americorp in Denver working with at-risk youth – runaways. When you think of Denver, you think of the mountains, how beautiful it is, but I met kids there who had crazy lives. Kids from Maryland who were scammed and got stuck out there, and kids who had escaped out of gangs in California.”
He considered staying in Denver. “I was a little unsettled about coming home after what I’d seen. I grew up on Long Island. My parents gave me so much. They sent me to good schools, and this was a different side to the life than I’d known.”
He turned to a friend who worked at the runaway shelter to talk over the decision. “One thing we discussed was me going home and becoming a cop. Two days later I got a call that there was a spot for me at the NYPD Academy, so I took it as a sign.”
He hoped as a cop that he could continue to help people. “I was probably in my teens when I became aware of what my family went through and all the help that was given to them, not just from people in the city but from people all over the world, and I just felt the need to help people.”
As a cop, he says it’s tough to deal with a lot of things but that he’s lucky to have had people ahead of him who taught him the right way. “You do your best to protect and serve. I work with men and women who take that seriously. There’s a lot of people who need help. That’s why you have your first responders; you have the NYPD and the FDNY. You have your EMS – some of the hardest working guys in the city.” Even after four years, he says he’s still a rookie. “I’m working with guys who have 25 years on the job, from before I was a twinkle in my dad’s eyes.”
Just then Steven rolls in. He’d been in the city talking to some new recruits. He puffs through a straw to make his wheelchair move, and he clearly has mastered the art. He does what amounts to a wheelie as he quickly turns around to get in place for the photo.
In between takes, we talked about the aftermath of the shooting, and his waking up in Bellevue hospital unable to move or speak. “The worst day was when Patti Ann came in with the neurosurgeon and he said, ‘Mrs. McDonald, the way you see Steven is the way he’s always going to be.’ And he walked out of the room. Patti Ann collapsed on the floor crying and I couldn’t move to comfort her or call for help. It was just awful.”
For months after the shooting, a tube was in his mouth blocking his vocal cords. Patti Ann, who is petite, would stand on a stool and put her ear to his mouth as he whispered a word or two. The only feeling he had was in his face. As the months went on she would try to put her pregnant belly near his face so he could feel the baby move.
There were days, he said, when he wished he was dead. In a book, The Steven McDonald Story, that he wrote with Patti Ann and E.J. Kahn in 1989, he recounted how he would whisper to a friend to pull the blanket over his head and pump up his pain medication so he could escape the reality of what had happened.
Now he talks openly to people about his battle with depression. Suicide is “an occupational hazard” in law enforcement. Statistics show that it is on the rise, and it’s a subject that Steven frequently addresses. “I tell them that I thought about doing it to myself. Thankfully, Patti Ann was there and she got on the phone and called Cardinal O’Connor and he came right over with Monsignor McCarthy. They spent the whole day into the night with me. They comforted me in my depression and talked me out of it.
“I tell people that they also want to be a winner in that [suicide-prone] situation and how they wouldn’t be solving any problems but creating new problems for their friends and families.”
He gives maybe five or six talks a month. To young officers just starting out he talks about keeping safe on the job and brings his message of being a “survivor and a winner” to schools and churches. “I talk about forgiveness. I tell them how I forgave the boy who shot me.”
That can’t have been easy, I say.
“No. Was I angry and was Patti Ann hurt? And was the baby experiencing all of this in utero? My parents, Patti Ann’s parents our families and friends – very tough cops were crying. They didn’t know if I was going to live. I was hurt, I lost the power of speech. Patti would have to give birth to Conor all by herself.
“But there came a time at the end of that year, 1986, before and just after Conor was born where I felt that I wanted to forgive the boy who shot me. I came to realize he wasn’t evil. He and I were part of an evil occurance. One that was too common in New York City in the 1980s.
“After Conor’s baptism Patti Ann spoke to the crowd gathered outside the chapel and told them that I forgave the boy who shot me. The media did not know what to make of it.”
Steven goes on to talk about how his time in Bellevue became “a very intense spiritual experience”; his hospital room was “in effect, a chapel. There was always members of the clergy – all different faiths came and prayed with us.”
After the shooting Mayor Koch was notified. “When he walked into the room and saw Patti Ann pregnant, our parents and families – many people praying the rosary – he was very moved. He called Cardinal O’Connor and said, ‘You need to be here.’ And that’s how it all began. Patti Ann and his Eminence became quick and close friends.
“The Cardinal said to Patti Ann, ‘I’ll make sure that there is always Mass said at Steven’s bedside.’ So from July to the following April, we always had Mass in my room. And my mother remembered a Mass in the weeks after my shooting – the chaplain was distributing communion and he came to me. The tubing that is in my windpipe now was then inserted in my mouth, and my mom said the priest laid Jesus the Eucharist on my forehead and she felt that Jesus touched me in a powerful way at that moment. So everything that happened before and everything that would follow would not be the way other people scripted it for us.
“Have I always been close to God or led the perfect life? I don’t pretend to be that kind of person. But in this journey I’ve been on with Patti Ann and Conor we found out that the only way forward was Christlike love. This way of loving has made so much good possible in our lives and our world. Once you let go of the wrongs that have been done to you it changes everything. I could have gone the other way. I could have been overcome with emotion, bitterness and anger. Patti called them wasted emotions. I could have killed myself. I tried to. God always found me, and with the help of others I got through it all.”
The summer before he was shot, Steven was reading Trinity, Leon Uris’s historical novel about Ireland. Conor Larkin was the hero of the novel. “So here I am in the hospital. I have tubes running in and out of me. I’m breathing on a ventilator, but when I wanted to give up, Patti Ann would remind me of the baby she was carrying saying, ‘Do you remember you said if you had a son you would like to name him Conor?’
“Finally, 10 months after the shooting I was fitted with a special breathing tube. This enabled me to thank Patti Ann and tell her how much I loved her in my own voice.”
Steven’s 10 month stay in Bellevue was followed by six months of rehab in Colorado. It became obvious that returning home to their New York apartment was not an option. Patti Ann’s father had a suggestion.
“Patti Ann grew up across the street from Mrs. Regozin who lived here. She was like a grandmother to Patti Ann. She got sick soon after I was shot, died, and her house was for sale.
“Patti Ann called me in Colorado and said, ‘My dad was wondering if you would mind if we moved in across the street?’ And I said, no, that would be a great idea.”
The foundation created in Steven’s name by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association had over $200,000 in it and Patti Ann wondered if she could use the money to buy the house, which was listed at $235,000.
Detective Brian Mulheran, who had helped set up the foundation and became a good friend, arranged a meeting with Dickie Fay, a partner in Bear Stearns and the foundation’s accountant.
As recounted in the Steven McDonald Story, Brian and Patti put their idea to Dickie, who listened and then excused himself. After a few minutes he returned with Arthur Crames, another Bear Stearns partner. “We don’t need to use the foundation’s funds,” he said. “We’ll buy you the house.” Steven picks up the story, “And then Mayor Koch called builder Eugene McGovern, whose company Lehrer/ McGovern had restored the Statue of Liberty, and asked if he would build a home for us. He agreed, and Patti Ann and Brian helped coordinate the renovation with the managers of the project. “They almost completely gutted [the house],” says Steven.
The work is extraordinary.
Earlier, when Patti Ann had shown me the upstairs family room we had taken the stairs. It was only later that I noticed the lift, discreetly concealed behind a clouded glass door that makes the upper level accessible to Steven.
We move to the kitchen, which is festooned with red hearts for Valentine’s Day.
“Steven’s been giving me a hard time,” says Patti Ann, laughing. “I had Christmas and then put the hearts up. We do a lot of entertaining here at the house with both families because it makes for easier accessibility with Steven. This past weekend we had a mass here because it was a year since Steven’s mother passed away, and then we had people here for the Super Bowl.”
I notice the Irish soda bread on the counter and make a comment. “Would you like some? It’s from the local bakery,” Patti Ann asks. Sure.
Soon the smell of toasting bread fills the air and we are seated at the round kitchen table with mugs of Barry’s tea. Talk turns to Patti Ann’s job as Mayor of Malverne. “She officiated at the groundhog ceremony,” Steven says. “I said, he didn’t see his shadow so we’re going to have an early spring,” Patti Ann comments with a laugh. “Wrong.”
While we enjoy our snack, Steven excuses himself to go upstairs. He wants to show us a video tape of a trip he made to Northern Ireland and is frustrated that Andy (Det. Andy Cserenyi his driver and aide) can’t seem to find it. As he rolls away, I become acutely aware that in almost three decades he hasn’t been able to enjoy the simple pleasure of lifting a cup of tea to his lips.
The phone rings. It’s for Patti Ann. It rings often during our visit. Is it always like this? I ask Conor. “It is,” he confirms. “Both my parents have a lot going on.”
“What’s your average day like as mayor?” I ask Patti Ann when she returns.
“It varies. I can make my own schedule. I call in first thing in the morning at nine o’clock when the village hall opens. I pop in and out, walk around the village. Today I met somebody and we were discussing the Congressional situation.”
Patti Ann had been interviewed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign as a potential candidate to replace retiring Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, but in the end Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice, was chosen to run.
“I was extremely flattered to be considered,” says Patti Ann, who was elected in 2006 and is now in her second term as mayor. She is a well-known figure in local politics, having served as one of the village’s four trustees for 11 years. When her father John Francis Norris passed away in office in May, 1996, she completed his term as mayor.
An interest in politics is also inherited from the maternal side of her family, the Kennedys of Boston. “No relation of J.F.K.” she laughs. But there is a letter from J.F.K. to her grandfather Patrick Kennedy, expressing his thanks, and saying that he wouldn’t have been elected to the Senate in 1952 without Patrick’s help.
“Local politics is much different from national politics,” Conor adds. “My mother does a very good job of bi-partisanship in our area, so I don’t think Malverne has ever looked so good.”
Steven returns having found the video, and as Andy sets it up, he talks about Northern Ireland and the trips he made there with Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain to the FDNY, and a great friend who was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
In 1998, as Northern Ireland was experiencing the worst sectarian violence in years, Steven spoke in both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods and returned the following year with his message of “Faith and Forgiveness.”
“I spent part of four summers up in the North, and people there helped me more in my situation than I’ve helped them,” he says. “We went in 1998, ’99, and 2000 and we went back in 2008. It would have been Father Mychal’s 75th birthday.
The video we watch, “A Journey to Forgiveness,” follows Steven on a trip he made with Father Judge and members of the Bruderhof community from Britain. “We began in Dundalk on June 28, 2000 and en route to Belfast went through some of the most troubled towns in Northern Ireland with an invitation to people of different communities to walk with us, to pray, sing and become one voice of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“Some neighborhoods the RUC wouldn’t let us walk through, but hundreds of people joined us. We walked up Garvahy Road to Drumcree Church on July 5th. There were clashes in the streets because the traditional Orange Order march through Catholic neighborhoods on July 12th had been banned. The Rev. John Pickering was the pastor of that [Protestant] church and we went in and prayed with him. He was very cordial, though worried about trouble as the place was surrounded by paratroopers.
“The reason I mention this is that right after 9/11, Rev. Pickering wrote to us saying, ‘I was thinking of my brother Mychal.’ The Reverend also lost a niece in the Trade Towers.
“I encountered more stories of forgiveness in the North than there are street corners in Belfast,” Steven says. “A lot of people came out of the woodwork to say, ‘I want to tell you what I did.’ It became a beautiful thing.”
On his trips to Ireland, Steven also came across some relatives. “When I came home from the hospital, being that I had been so close to dying, I thought that I should find out how life began for my family in America. So I started doing the family tree and discovered that my mother’s people were from Arless Parish in Laois.
In 1998 we arrived in Dublin one week after the bomb exploded in Omagh and on our way north, my driver Joe tells me that he went to school with a J.J. Conway from Arless. We went to visit J.J. and it turns out that he’s a relative of my mother’s. J.J. stands for James Joseph, that was my grandfather’s name. All his family have names in common with my family. We’ve become good friends.”
This chance encounter is what Steven calls a “God incident.”
“Patti Ann found a saying that I believe in, that there are no coincidences in life, only God incidents. I’ve had a lot of God incidences happen to me. All the nurses, and drivers, they have become family and helped to raise Conor. Susan [his Nurse] has been with us for 25 years, and Kathie for 15. You could say they are God incidents.”
When I ask Steven what inspires him he answers simply, “Patti Ann.”
“I’m sure that there have been times where she has said, I can’t deal with this. She would only be human if she felt that way. But as a young bride she gave up a lot of dreams to keep me alive, and keep us together as a family.
“Last night I was watching on Turner Classics The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). There are many different sub-plots in the movie and one is of this young Navy man Homer who lost his arms in the war and he goes home to his parents house. His girlfriend Wilma is next door and she displays unconditional love and he’s thinking that she could never understand, because he can’t understand and he can’t accept the way he is. How could she? And near the end of the movie they are in his room and he drops off his prosthetic arms and says, ‘Now I’m helpless. I can’t button my shirt. I can’t open the door if I need help.’ And Wilma buttons his shirt and says, ‘I will always be here for you.’ And Patti Ann has always been that person for me.”
As we pack up to leave, Steven is in the kitchen watching a Rangers game on a small TV on the counter. Patti Ann runs out to her car and comes back with Malverne sweatshirts for us. Conor has already left for his apartment in Long Beach. Andy and Kathie wait to be called into action. Steven goes back into Manhattan tonight to talk to officers on the midnight shift about being a survivor and a winner and keeping safe. In his words, “I hope that I say something that will help them.”