Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remembering a Religious Friend

Lives Lived Well and the Lessons That They Teach
The following was published in the New York Times, January 2, 2000:


PAUL T. LAFFIN was a product of a Hartford family renowned for its advocacy for the sick and distressed. His siblings included two nurses, a health care worker and a director of a group home.

Mr. Laffin worked for a time as a psychiatric technician at Hartford Hospital after graduating from Merrimack College. But a decade ago, he switched to something closer to his heart. He joined the staff of St. Elizabeth Center, a shelter for the homeless on Main Street, eventually becoming its associate director. He was known both for the zest he brought to the job and his nonjudgmental attitude toward the people who lived there.

''He cared about people,'' said Sister Patricia McKeon, executive director of Mercy Housing and Shelter Group, the parent organization for the shelter. ''He really cared, and he went the extra mile for them. They weren't just numbers.''

Mr. Laffin, 42, died on Sept. 20 (1999) on a street near the homeless shelter as a result of a random attack by a mentally ill man who had been hospitalized three times in psychiatric wards for threatening people.

Remembering Paul Laffin

It's been almost nine years since my childhood friend Paul Laffin met his much-lamented demise. Paul came from a very religious family, one which on the surface didn't appear to be burdened with much dysfunction - unlike my own religious family. His mother and father were virtual icons in the local Catholic church, involving themselves in a number of other-than-Sunday activities.

Paul and I began our obligatory Catholic education in the second grade at St. Peter's School, which was located right next door to the very place Paul would find himself employed many years later, the St. Elizabeth Shelter for the Homeless. In real distance, his journey only took him a few feet, but in a much more meaningful way, it took him right to the end of his life.

To be honest, Paul and I were little more than a couple of child-hooligans in the second grade. As an example, for no other reason than the fact that we were allowed to return to class twenty minutes later than everyone else, we often attended Mass at noon in the church next door. We did little else than trade baseball cards and shoot spitballs from the back pews, yet we were always greeted warmly upon our return to class because we were considered so devoted for attending Mass on such a regular basis. There's no other way to put it. We were engaged in naked, religious fraud, pure and simple.

Our propensity for hijinks usually extended right up until the closing prayer of the day. With Paul seated in the first desk by the window and I seated in the first desk by the door, we would often glare at each other from across the room in a duel-to-the-death staring contest during the recitation. One afternoon, I got the better of Paul when right after the opening few words of the Act of Contrition, our contest suddenly ended with Paul flailing his arms up in the air, keeling over at the waist, and bursting out loud in uncontrollable laughter. I can still recall the nun who led us in prayer that day pinching Paul by the tip of the ear, whisking him toward the door and saying to him, "You find something funny about the Act of Contrition, Mr. Laffin? Maybe you can go down to the Principal's office and tell him just what that would be." How I contained myself as Paul was ushered past me, his head tilted sideways, I'll never know.

Paul and I shared something else unusual. We each lost a sibling to suicide; I, an older brother named Stephen, and he, a younger sister named Mary. Mary had the face of an angel and a personality to match. That she would find herself so conflicted she would resort to self destruction defied all logic. It was plain that the demon of despair was an equal opportunity destroyer of lives. And as difficult as this is to admit, I often wondered whether the extremely religious environment she was brought up in had anything to do with her demise. It hurts to even suggest it, but I know what pressures can be brought to bear by religiously overzealous parents. (As I mentioned in my earlier post, Recalling a Brother's Suicide, I believe this very influence was a major factor in my brother Stephen's last desperate act.)

Paul was a very religious person, but in a private and casual sort of way. It was his humanity that was most evident at any given moment. Years ago, I would occasionally run into him at the corner pub where Paul liked to go after working his usual second shift as a psychiatric technician at Hartford Hospital. After listening to some of the stories he would tell me, I understood completely why he often needed to imbibe after work. "Those people are crazy!" Paul once said to me. "They're in a tough way aren't they, Paul?" I replied, attempting to dole out a little empathy for him and those whom he cared for. Paul's response, "No. Not the patients. The staff! They're crazy!" Conversations without laughter were not possible with Paul Laffin. His sense of humor was both infectious and relentless. Often just the look on his face was more than enough to get me started.

I'm certain Paul would have remained a friend to me if he were with us today despite my divergent path as regards religious faith. He certainly seemed to be the kind of person who understood that it is the quest for truth that is important, not any arrogantly self-assured notion that one person could be in total possession of it. Celebrating that which we had in common - our humanity - would have been more than enough to sustain our friendship.

We miss you, Paul. Thanks for that laugh in the second grade at St. Peter's, and thanks for all the wonderful work you did at St. Elizabeth's.


  1. Over the years I have let religion fall by the wayside. There is no specific reason, I just have. And if I contemplate as to why this has transpired, I still do not believe I can pin down any one event. I know there are things I know to be random acts, for if God has done them, he ain't a nice guy.

    There quite a few folks who probably do not know I have no religion in my life. Odd that should be that in a part of my life I have chosen to undertake homeschooling and that is usually made up by a large portion of Christians.

    One of my dearest friends told me that she knows that many of the women in our group probably have no idea I am a person of no faith. Now what I am inquisitive to know is...if they did know would they view me differently, no longer speak to me, have their children no partake in my cooking classes?

    You were lucky that Paul took you at face value. That my friend is what friendship is all about!

  2. I was very moved by your words about Paul. Paul truly took you at face value and believed in all the goodness of your humanity. If we believe in anything, we need to believe in each other. That is what Paul taught by helping the homeless.

    In my job I'm sometimes criticized for taking a humanistic and compassionate approach to my job wanting to give people a second chance. As a factory line team leader, I hire some of the neediest and my compassion for them sometimes makes people wonder. But, if we cannot show compassion for the least fortunate among us, then for what purpose are we living our life? We can see the best and the worst in every human being and it is my serious objective to bring out the best. I'm getting better at putting this into practice, but it sounds like Paul was an expert at it.

    Great post William :)

  3. I really enjoyed this post! I find it sad many would make religion or lack of a requirement for friendship, I think your friendship and caring for each other speaks highly of the character of you both!

  4. I'm so sorry to say, Tara, that my own mother kind of gives religious people a bad name with her intolerance. I have been decidedly lowered on the human intellectual food chain since my mother became aware of my skepticism. She actually thinks less of me as a person.

    You, however, seem to appreciate the need to respect ideological diversity. I tend to think a little more of religious people after hearing from someone such as yourself.

  5. Tomorrow marks 10 years that our friend Paul Laffin was taken from us on such a tenderly warm, deceitfully cruel September day at Mercy Housing & Shelter Corporation in Hartford, Connecticut.

    We together all that morning, Paul & I; from our hysterical emergency meeting about what to do with a clients' strange bagful of cash to a quick smoke (or three) in the back room; I was there. Paul stopped by to wave, on his way to the hospital to visit his Dad as he did every day.

    Paul never made it to see his Dad. Like a scene unfolding in the haze of a dream, Paul's life was viciously extinguished by a knife. The hand wielding the knife belonged to an extremely mentally ill man; a child of God who society, who the Church, who Mercy itself could not help. I was with him while he faced the inenvitible fate that awaits us all- I saw his breath leave his body.

    I like to think I witnessed a free soul gain flight. Toward heaven? Toward where? Did it matter where he actually went, or where we believe he went?

    For weeks afterward, 'crisis' workers from nearby agencies hovered around us; 'the witnesses'...we had memorials, candles, and eventually Mercy planted a garden in his name.

    Seeking solace in finding one of my fellow
    soldiers (coworkers) with whom to remember Paul this year, I found no one from the Shelter. Googling and Facebook stalking everyone I could remember, I found no-one. All of us who were there that day, save for Sister Pat are gone. Vanished apparantly, into the clouds, the deserts, the frontlines, or maybe the recesses of our safe, predictable world.

    I devoured Mercy Housing & Shelter's website- I sought anything; any mention of Paul, of this 10 year anniversary of his return to Jesus Christ, of his life and works. Was he nominated as an unsung hero? From this God-driven agency, on whose soil he died, for whose weary he comforted, there was NOTHING. No memorial. No newsletter. No mention.

    Nothing in Mercy's history to give due a man that LIVED in God, who breathed unassuming goodness into every room he went. Mercy Housing & Shelter Corporation. He gave his life to God in your service- how will you remember Paul? Will you pray for him? For his family & friends? For his soldiers from that day?

    Because I am quite certain that every last one of us still needs it.

    Tomorrow when I trekk up Mercy House to lay flowers and a pack of Kools near his garden and place of death, I will say the obligatory prayer; I will pretend he hears me; I will give pause and maybe even genuflect. But it doesn't matter because I know I will be alone.