G-d Don't Let Me Die
Over thirty years ago, in 1986 on a warm July Central Park afternoon, tragedy struck near Manhattan's 107th Street. Steven McDonald, 29, a blue-eyed boyishly handsome U.S. Navy veteran and third generation officer, was questioning in plainclothes, three kids aged thirteen to fifteen about some bicycle larcenies when he noticed something protruding out of one of the teens' sock. Without warning three deafening shots pierced the summer calm striking Officer McDonald just above the eye, in his throat, with the last one shattering his spinal cord. McDonald's last memory of the event as his body crumpled beneath him, was thinking "G-d don't let me die."
Every NYPD officer, me included, irrespective of faith prayed that the gravely wounded officer, married less than a year, with a wife four months pregnant would survive. G-d answered our prayers, but he became the mostly gravely wounded officer in the history of the NYPD to live. And live he did!
See You on the Other Side
Detective McDonald, who lived three decades more as a quadriplegic was always connected to three things: a wheelchair, a ventilator and his rosary beads. He died Tuesday at 1:09 p.m. at Long Island's North Shore University Medical Center, after suffering a massive heart attack last Friday. A beautiful photo was posted on Facebook by his son, Connor, 29, cheek to cheek (the only way Steven could physically feel), with the words "I'll see you on the other side Daddio. I love you
Can The Unforgivable Be Forgiven?
The child who shot him so long ago, Shavon Jones, eventually matured, served nine years in prison for attempted murder and even apologized. Jones grew up in East Harlem, raised mostly by a grandmother who loved him very much, but who had difficulty controlling his behavior.
Steven, guided by his deep Catholic faith and an NYPD Chaplain, forgave the young man. On the day of his son's Christening Steven said of Jones, "I forgive him, and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life." Steven McDonald, since a detective, wanted very much to go on speaking tours with Shavon Jones to address young people about overcoming adversity and bridging differences. They never met again as three days after his release from prison Shavon Jones tragically died in a motorcycle accident, before the two could ever meet again.
Since then, Steven has gone on his speaking sojourns solo, but what a journey it's been. He conferred with Pope Saint John Paul II and Nelson Mandela and has promoted peace around the world from Bosnia to Northern Ireland to the Middle East. He went to a Baptist church with the family of the child who shot him and prayed. After visiting with divided peoples from one war torn part of the world, he quipped of reconciliation with his trademark gentle humor, saying, that's going to be a tough one. He's been honored by both the Mets and the Rangers hockey team; who named an annual award after him. But its been his frequent talks to "average" New Yorkers, from school kids to cops about forgiveness and what's important in life that has forever transformed his department and the city he serves.
The Priest and The Officer
Not long after his injury, the NYPD chaplain who counseled Detective McDonald, Msg. John J Kowsky, passed, and his friendship with a fellow Irishman and future NYFD chaplain began to blossom. Father Mychal Judge, NYFD chaplain, priest and Franciscan friar with wavy gray hair, flowing friar robes and a two hundred watt smile was as immense as the city he loved. For us New Yorkers, he was our municipal saint, ministering to the vulnerable and powerful alike: the homeless, the sick, disabled, firefighters, struggling gay men, alcoholics, crash victims and mayors. On September 10, 2001 he gave this homily dedicating a firehouse in the Bronx:
"You do what God has called you to do. You get on that rig, you go out and do the job. No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea of what God is calling you to, but God needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us. God needs us to keep supporting each other, to be kind to each other, to love each other...
Isn't God wonderful?! Isn't He good to you, to each one of you, and to me? Turn to God each day -- put your faith, your trust, your hope and your life in His hands. He'll take care of you, and you'll have a good life. And this firehouse will be a great blessing to this neighborhood and to this city. Amen."
The very next morning of September 11, 2001 the worst act of terrorism ever to hit our shores left 2,977 dead, when passenger planes struck the two silver gleaming towers of New York's World Trade Center; the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the gentle rolling green fields of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Rushing towards the chaos to help and administer last rites to the fallen, was Father Mychal. After delivering last rites outside, he was killed in the lobby of one the gleaming towers after the other collapsed raining mountains of debris on those below. A Reuters photograph of his limp gray, ash covered body being carried out by responders on a broken chair was one of the iconic photographs of the tragedy, called by many an American Pieta.
Right after he was pronounced dead the firemen rushed back to the emergency as a couple of NYPD officers searched in vain for another priest to give Father Mychal last rites. A woman working in a church told the officers, both Catholic, that they could administer the last rites, and the friar turned firefighter became New York's newest angel, ironically sent to G-d by cops turned temporary clergy; to look after the 342 other firefighters and scores of cops who perished, whom he loved so much.
It was Steven McDonald who ID'ed Father Mychal's body city and the coroner listed his death certificate as 00001, the first person to perish in the terror attack. Afterwards Steven would comfort others lost in that terrible act of hatred and violence.
There was another famous photo fifteen years prior, that of Detective McDonald being carried on a stretcher into Bellevue hospital surrounded by a battalion of Samaritans dressed in scrubs and police uniforms, and I always believed that G-d's hand carried him that day as well.
Two Lives As Lesson For Us All
It wasn't G-d's will that he be shot, but that he would live. Live to see his son become a proud NYPD police sergeant and his wife Patti who stood by him, another hero, become mayor of Malverne on Long Island. Moreover, he should live so we can see that in the end the highest calling of our law enforcement profession, indeed of all true leaders irrespective of rank, is bravery compassion, humility and forgiveness. Not just when its easy, but when its hard. Indeed, he helped evolve the municipal character of the metropolis he loved with bravery and compassion. While they are gone, the lessons of the lives of the Priest and the Detective, so well lived, serve as a precious model. That those of us left behind, with so much less to complain about, develop the sagacity to listen to those acting in good conscience with whom we may diverge from, and even more tenuously, those who have done the seemingly unforgivable. As St. Teresa advises, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." Tomorrow at New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral Detective McDonald's city will stop to love him and learn how his extraordinary life, changed our city. If I could I'd ask Father Mychal one more thing: to look over our fallen NYPD Angel, his family, department and the city he loves so very much, but somehow I feel he already has.