Asbestos killed my father. Now my mother is sick – by Heidi von Palleske (Globe and Mail – July 28, 2011)

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When I was a child, I went to a Christmas party at the factory where my dad worked. There was a Santa and presents. My siblings and I went along with the other children on a tour of the factory.

I didn’t care about the machinery or how it worked. I only marvelled at the fairy dust in the air and how it seemed to sparkle when the light hit it. To me, it was magical, not something that would be a carrier of death.

Death has its own sound. It is the rattle of my mother’s lungs as she struggles for air. The purring sound she makes when the breath finally finds its way in. The rasp of her voice as she speaks.

My 79-year-old mother is dying. She’s dying just as my father did four years ago. There is no way to slow the process. No hope for a cure. There is no relief. Once mesothelioma is discovered, it is already too late.

We have only just recovered from my father’s death at 79. My daughter still cries over him. On her birthday, she releases a balloon into the air, telling her Opa how old she is and how she misses him. She used to make me bake him a cake on his birthdays and she always left him a piece by the window. The first year she cried and cried when she discovered it was uneaten.

My daughter is not good with change. She doesn’t find any comfort in the thought of death releasing her grandmother from pain. Death frightens her. She has not developed the faith in the afterlife that, thankfully, my mother has.

I cannot lie to my girl. I tell her that her grandmother is sick. That she will not be here much longer. My daughter asks, “Why?” And so I tell her about my father’s work in an asbestos factory and how he carried fibres home on his clothes and his skin and how Grandma breathed them in when she washed his overalls in the tub.

What I don’t tell her is that asbestos is an airborne substance and that, as my mother shook the clothes before she washed them, the asbestos was carried in the air throughout my childhood home. I don’t tell her that I used to run into my dad’s arms when he came home and that his embrace carried with it an element of disease.

But 11-year-olds are clever these days. Although many of my friends didn’t make the logical leap, it is only a matter of minutes before she asks, “Mom, does that mean you could get it too?”

And that is the question that keeps me awake at night. I reason that my mother shared my father’s bed, did his laundry and was exposed to more fibres over a longer period. I had been an aerobics instructor and a runner and so surely I must have exhaled most of the fibres.

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