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.
But then I scour the Internet for statistics on my chance of getting mesothelioma after 17 years of secondhand, or what they call para-occupational, exposure.
My sleep is sporadic. I try to clear my head with computer games. When I mindlessly match gems on the screen I don't think about death. I don't see my father's dying face. I don't hear my mother's gasping breath. But then my mind starts making deals. If I beat my last score, my lungs will be clear. I will live long enough to see my daughter graduate from university. I bargain for five years, 10 years, 20 years. Trying to beat the odds.
After two weeks of this I get an appointment for a CT scan of my lungs. Better to know the truth than to rely on the wisdom of a computer game.
When I first heard that my mother had mesothelioma, a cancer of which the only known cause is asbestos exposure, I should have been concerned about only one thing: her welfare. I should have gone through the stages of grieving that any child losing their mother experiences.
Instead, coupled with concern for her, I feared for myself. I started worrying about how my husband would dress my daughter for school. Who would help her with her math homework? How would they fare without me? I tried to make everyone more self-sufficient. My husband, my daughter, my goddaughter who lives with us. Even the cats. I found myself getting impatient if my family needed me for anything. "I might not be here forever!" I snapped.
What seems unfair is that I was first exposed as a baby. I had no idea I was at risk until my mother was diagnosed. There was no support for the families of asbestos workers. No information was given to us. As we watched our fathers or husbands die, we believed the suffering ended there.
I couldn't wait any longer. I phoned for my results and told the receptionist to just read them over the phone to spare me the two days of waiting for an appointment. She told me there was no sign of mesothelioma, no sign of asbestosis and no sign of asbestos exposure. My daughter ran in from the next room. We were hugging and crying all at once.
I visited my mother. I told her my news and she was happy. She could not bear for her children to die the way she is going. "I always thought that health was the most important thing," she said. "If you don't have your health what do you have? I no longer have my health but I do have one thing still – love. In the end that is all there is."
And, like most mothers, she was right again. In the end, there is only love. And so my heart goes out to the thousands of chrysotile asbestos workers in India and to their families who are also victims of the fairy dust.
Heidi von Palleske lives in Toronto and Northumberland County, Ont.