One year earlier
I am the lead prosecutor in the office of the Metropolitan Boston District Attorney. I’m known as the attack dog, the top gun, the guy who has blinders on when it comes to the right and wrong of justice. I am that way because my father, “Big Dan” O’Connor, was a captain in the Boston Police Department. There was never any gray in our house; there was only his way or the highway. And there was no sparing of the rod to spoil the poor blind child.
Actually, my da never called me blind. He used words like sightless, disabled, impaired, handicapped. I’m not sure why that was. Maybe he just couldn’t face the fact that I was blind, or maybe he somehow connected my blindness to his own failure as a man. It wasn’t that he was a bad father; on the contrary, he was a good provider. He just never really saw me as I was—and certainly not as I am now.
He’s proud of me, no question about it; but we’re not close in the way I am with my children, Tommy and Shannon. You often hear that “the sins of the father are visited on the child”—well, I don’t think Big Dan O’Connor committed any mortal sins, but I do know that his distance toward me has shaped me into a father who is fully engaged in raising my son and daughter.
Certainly my wife, Bridgette, has a lot to do with the intimacy I have with my family. Actually, Bridgette has everything to do with everything. She is my heart, my eyes on the world, the helpmate and soul mate, friend, mother, lover, sounding board—but I’ll talk more about her later.
So here I am, at the top of my game, preparing to deliver the most important summation of my legal career. Life has prepared me well for this important day. First, there was the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, where I learned Braille and the skills necessary to function capably as a blind adult. Then there was high school at Boston Latin, the toughest academic public school in the city. Then, somehow my da found the money for me to go to Boston College and Boston College Law School. Not bad for a kid born in a three-story tenement on Second Street in South Boston.
I’ve spent ten years in the prosecutor’s office, putting a fair number of scumbags in the slammer. Along the way, there have been plenty of offers for me to cross to the other side and become a highly paid defense counsel, but I just can’t do it. It’s not that I feel like a chivalrous public servant, some kind of a knight on a white horse saving the less fortunate from all the bad guys. It’s just that—well, I suppose it’s just somewhere in my DNA. So thanks, Da.
* * *
I don’t think I slept last night. If I did it, was only for a couple of hours. We live in Scituate, a seacoast town nestled twenty-eight miles south of Boston that is often called the Irish Riviera because most of Boston’s Irish politicians, along with a few police captains lucky enough to save their money, have summer houses there. Only a few months after Da retired, my mother developed cancer and died quickly. I guess my father didn’t want to live in a house full of memories, so he moved to Florida. He sold the house to Bridgette and me, and that’s why we can afford Scituate.
And what about my mother? She was a beautiful soul. Where my da believed I should be out in the world with sighted children, Maeve was sure that what I really needed was to get an education and to develop skills that would make me not only independent, but valuable to society. She’d say, “Dan, we have to keep him in the school for the blind. That’s where he’ll get the support to develop the talents that will make him special.” Boy, did they go round and round on this subject. Finally, they compromised and, as I told you, I attended high school at Boys Latin, getting a classical education that has served me well today.
I said that my da’s world was always black and white. Well, my mother’s was riveted in Catholicism: sacraments and sin followed by confession and forgiveness, saints, feast days, and the cross. She attended Mass every day, never ate meat on Fridays—even when they said we could, continually prayed to the Blessed Mother, and probably believed that sex was something you did only to produce children.
There are three in our family. Two older sisters and me. I love my sisters, but I can’t say we’re close. I suppose that’s because our family never really achieved intimacy, largely due to the fact that my father was so domineering and my mother so religious. We were always afraid to be funny or clever.
The rule in our house was, “Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.” Frankly, that sounds more Puritan than Irish, since the Irish by nature are loquacious communicators. I learned that was true when I went to Boston College and broke out of my enforced shell. I’ve actually become very outgoing. My job requires me to be a good talker, and thanks to Bridgette and the children I’m totally involved in our community, from helping to coach Tommy’s soccer and baseball teams—that’s right, a blind guy as a coach—to riding horses with my daughter, Shannon, as she takes riding lessons that cost us too much money.
I’ve really done my homework and feel completely prepared for my summation. It’s great to live in a time when technology has become available to the blind. We have talking everything: computers, GPS, ovens, clocks, thermometers, even baseballs that beep, and our own versions of iPods, iPhones, and Kindles.
But none of those gadgets is as important to my daily life as the astounding animal that lies at my feet. He’s an eighty-five-pound golden retriever named Bailey, and though I shouldn’t admit it, I love him probably as much as I love my family. He’s five now, right at the height of his guide dog talent, and he is everybody’s favorite in the DA’s office and around the courthouse building. Bailey’s personality is an amazing blend of tender and loving, particularly toward my children, with a work ethic that makes him tough as nails when doing his job. Nothing ever draws him away from his fundamental purpose to keep his master safe and to move me efficiently anywhere I want to go.
No city in the world is as complicated to get around as Boston. The streets are laid out like a cow pasture, because that’s what it was at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Unlike New York, Washington, and other major cities, there is no pattern to Boston’s streets; with my portable GPS and remarkable guide dog, however, I am completely independent. Actually, when I think about it, that’s not quite true. Bailey and I are interdependent. That’s an important lesson I’ve learned from my experience with him.
Let me explain it this way: born three months premature, I had a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. There was too much oxygen pumped into the incubator, causing my retinas to be destroyed. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents when they took me to an ophthalmologist for that first examination. This guy had absolutely no bedside manner. After completing a perfunctory exam he simply informed my parents, “Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor, your child is blind, and there may be other developmental complications that will require you to take care of him for the rest of his life.”
I don’t know what his words did to my parents, but in my quest I became as independent as possible, and I think I have done pretty well. Thank God I was athletic, and sports became my ticket out of darkness. I wrestled in high school and won a state championship. I enjoy skiing and biking with Bridgette and pump a lot of iron at our local health club, so I look good making closing arguments in a well-tailored blue suit. I am computer literate and even do my own taxes.
But my marriage and my life with Bailey have made me understand that I am an interdependent person. Actually, I think that’s how it is for all of us. We live in an interdependent world, but sometimes we’re just too stupid to figure it out.
* * *
So I’m thinking about a lot of these things as Randy drives me to Boston. My friend Randy is a luxury that my top gun status has allowed. He is a teamster for the city, and he is assigned to me as a driver. This morning he picked me up at four-thirty so I could get to the courthouse a few hours before anyone else.
I’ll be summing up my case this morning, and to do it effectively I need to understand my space. By that, I mean I need to plan how I will be addressing the jury. I don’t want to come off as blind. I want to be able to move comfortably in the space between the jury box and my counsel table, so I came here early to work on it. I’ve been in this courtroom before, and frankly I sort of take advantage of a jury. I mean, as I address them, I know I hold their complete attention because they’re wondering if a blind guy is going to trip and fall down right in the middle of his summations.
Let’s see, it’s seven steps from my counsel table to the jury box. I can run my hand unobtrusively along the edge of the box and stop, directly facing individual jurors as I hear them breathing, making them feel that we’ve established real eye contact. There’s a delicate balance in all this. I don’t want to draw the jury’s attention away from my summation because they’re surprised at my mobility, but I want them to feel that I’m competent and that I’m absolutely committed to the belief that the person I am trying to put away deserves it.
So I spend an hour alone in the courtroom practicing. Jane, my paralegal, has also arrived early. She’s there not only to help me with the paperwork at the table but to make sure that everything is clear and exactly the way we rehearsed when I stand before the jury and give them my best.
The jury has seen Bailey throughout the trial, but he’ll stay with Jane when I deliver my closing argument. I have a feeling we’re winning. Jane and my two junior counsels have been watching the jurors’ faces, and they informed me that the body language of the jury seems to be in my favor.
I hope so, because this case has become personal. It goes to my core values of faith and trust, values that I’ve learned through my life experience with Bridgette, my children, and my guide dog, Bailey.
© 2011 Tom Sullivan