The following was published in the New York Times, January 2, 2000:
A HEART FOR THE HOMELESS
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.