On Family Attorneys
Today, for various reasons, I have been researching about “power of attorney” and the like. As far as I know, there is no one who has the authority to make command decisions in my life anymore, and that is a little worrisome.
This got me thinking about the fact that I do not have a personal attorney any more. I did, once: his name was Lafe Chafin, and he was a dear friend to me and my family.
He is dead now. Buried five years ago.
And today, thinking of him, my heart aches with a power as clear as it did then.
I am going to share two things I wrote about him. The first was written seven years ago, when he was still alive. The second, days after he died.
July 7, 2001:
I’m not a person who has a lot of heroes. There are a few people dotting the timeline of history that I admire a great deal but they are dead and we are cannot interact: unable to drink in the day to day of the person, they are defined by the major events in thier lives.
I do not believe that our souls are defined by the major events in our lives. At the end of time, all that matters is how we lived our lives day to day – it is the little things that are important.
So my heroes are not dusty skeletons locked in the tomb of history but rather they are people that I can meet with, people who I see breathing and living, men and women who are possessed of traits and strengths that I desire for myself. I see them and I say, “I like that part of that person,” and then I endeavor to fold the idea of that person into myself in an effort to make myself stronger.
One of my heroes is a man named Lafe Chafin. He is my family’s lawyer and one of the best friends that my father has had in his life – hell, one of the best friends that my entire family has been blessed with (and true friends are indeed a blessing).
From a very young age I knew that if I was ever in a rough spot I could count on him to step forward and beat the living tar out of anything that threatened me or mine – and he would (and did). He is possessed of an uncanny ability to cut through the crap that people hand to each other and distill things to thier essential truths.
If someone asks me, “what do you think typifies the idea of ‘West Virginian?'” I say: filled with enough piss and vinegar to not have to take shit from anyone. Being able to read the pointlessness from things and focus only on what matters and having the force of will to do the right thing and not settle for anything else.
This is what I get from Lafe Chafin. This is what I have pulled away from him. When I shake his hand I can feel the iron will inside him. It radiates a heat that lesser men shrink from.
He is a bird-of-prey.
Even now, as he dies slowly from emphysema and a million cancers.
I went to see him in his offices; he still goes to work every day, unwilling to allow his illness to get in the way of what he loves doing or prevent him from enjoying his twilight. To say that I was unprepared for seeing him is an understatement; I am a reasonably strong man, someone used to dealing with surprises, and I was caught off-gaurd by his appearance.
I last saw Lafe in 1999 and while he was obviously ill – taking hits from small oxygen tanks here and there – he was much the same as I remember him being my entire life. Now, however, the evils have eaten away at his soul and he is thin, so thin – a startling skeleton, covered in paper skin. His suit hung awkward, oversized.
His eyes, however, were as bright and hawlike as they have ever been. Penetrating, intelligent, perceptive.
Seeing him like this broke my heart. Not only for me but also for my father, who will soon lose his best remaining friend. I can only hope that I did not betray my surprise as deep as I think I had.
We talked. We talked about a lot of things; he was interested in hearing about my life, what I was doing, where I was going. He was interested my constant adventures –
the man I had become and had yet to grow into.
He says: Your father has been a very good friend to me over these years. He takes care of me now. I want you to know that. and I saw this hyper-acute love there, something rare and something real, and I suddenly understood my father, what he loves and believes.
It’s liquid, the things I understand and see, speaking with him and there is a welling of sadness as I realize:
he understands better than i do that this is the last time he will see me. this is his goodbye to me.
His eyes: hawklike.
I managed to hold it together until I got into the car.
There is a powerful rage in my heart – an anger born from a deep, black grief. A man such as this: this is unfair and I want to climb the mountain and scream and scream and scream –
I want to scream not for me or for him but for my father, who has to bury another of his,
I want to scream for the children he will leave behind and the grandchildren who will barely know his wisdom,
I want to scream for the rest of the world, this bastard, bloody place of dirt and pain because the billions of barbarians walking on its surface will not know or care what they have lost.
I know, in my heart of hearts, I know – I feel, I have faith – I know that this must be. That somewhere is a twisted, divine logic to all the horror and noise of life. I have a hope that someday we will rise above our brutalities and petty cruelties and be filled with enough piss and vinegar to cut through the bullshit that we hand one another and distill everything to its component truths. I have faith that we will. Maybe not now or in my lifetime, but perhaps in the lifetimes of my grandchildren or even thier grandchildren.
Until then, I can only carry what I learn forward. I can only be a pale shadow to the example of a man the Lafe breathed from the light inside, but I can try, dammit.
You can hear it in the silence.
One night, two years ago, I had dinner with my parents and thier friends. Lafe was there, and as we were leaving he pulled me aside and said something that I hold inside as a beacon – a guide for whenever I find myself foundering in self-doubt and self-pity. He said to me:
you know how you left home and drove across the country, not knowing where you were going or what you were getting into? that took more courage than anyone i know.
you’re one of my heroes because of that.
March 8, 2003:
On Friday morning I was woken by a phone call from my father. He was calling to inform me that one of our family’s nearest and dearest friends, Lafe Chafin, had passed on.
I have written about Lafe before and about my feelings about the man. He is (was) one of my heroes – truly a man of great internal strength and vigor, despite having been crippled by emphysema and advanced cancer for the past five or so years. Two years ago, my father said, I wouldn’t have given him two months. He held on. We all did.
He was that strong inside. An oak with deep roots.
No obituary could do this man justice. No words exist within my feeble vocabulary to describe what he meant to me and my family – and like my father, I feel a great hollowness inside.
Lafe was 74 years old. It was a long enough life – one that he filled with an uncompromising honesty, integrity, and deep resolve to help his fellow man (he was a pioneer in labor law) and generally make life better for people. Simply being in his presence made people somehow feel better about themselves – he had this uncanny ability to make a person feel that those things that were their secret weaknesses (and there were no “secret” weaknesses with him – he saw everything) were also their hidden strengths.
He wouldn’t allow you to dish bullshit, either. Not to him, not to anyone else – and most certainly not to yourself.
I sit and I type this and it has been a few days since the phone call and I have not cried – until now. I had thought myself ready for this day – ever since two years ago when I saw that he was dying first hand.
I never really knew either of my grandfathers before they died. Lafe was, perhaps, the closest thing I had to one. He always seemed to have that kind of grandfatherly pride and interest in my accomplishments and what I was doing. It made me feel warm inside.
My last conversation with him was a couple weeks ago. He had been admitted to the hospital for a couple days for routine tests. I called him there and we shot the shit for a while, but he was tiring easily so we didn’t talk as long as I would have liked. I knew then – as I knew with every conversation we had had for the past couple years – that this could possibly be the last time we would speak. We had already said our dark and serious goodbyes; what was left was laughter and enjoyment.
He said to me once that I was one of his heroes – and he had several reasons why. I was speechless.
I can only hope that I will be able to live up to the honor which that entails – that I, too, can become as regal an oak with roots only half as deep as he.