It’s 4.45 in the morning, pitch black outside. The alarm clock goes off – the most hated sound at the start of the day. He hits it out, half asleep. Trying to get out of the oh-so-comfortable slumber, all he can think of is how he’s going to need a bit more time to get up. 5 minutes, tops! A minute later, a second alarm goes off, tearing him out of his inertia all over again. Sensing it’s going to be futile to continue fighting his time, he surrenders to his time-keeper & slowly rolls out of bed.
His wife dozes peacefully, he glances at her a moment – they have been married since high school & he’s in still in love with her. Through the painful times, when their world seemed to collapse, he learned to love her even more. He’s grateful for having her in his life, but hardly acknowledges it. A tired smirk grows out of the corner of his mouth as he gets up, goes to the bathroom & gets ready.
Half an hour later, he fetches his lunch box from the kitchen, grabs his gear & locks the door as he leaves his home. ‘I hope that crazy leakage finally gets fixed today!’ he thinks, as he hops into his truck, backs out the driveway & heads to work. A pipeline burst at one of the shafts near the lift, flooding the central area at the top. Getting in & out of the mine has since become a pain. He’s been supervising at an asbestos mine, at mid-managerial level, just shy of 13 years now. He’s been working in it, overall, for 30 years.
The time is now 6.00 am & he’s just arriving outside. As he puts his hard hat on & walks towards the mine, his foreman meets him, sarcastically jokes about how he didn’t get any last night again, then briefs him about the day. He takes a look at the roster, sifting through the pages of the activity log. ‘Tunnel 6 approaching 80% completion’
‘Whoa! If the guys keep it up at this rate, we’ll complete the project 6 weeks in advance.’ he thinks to himself. ‘Way to go, boys!’
Before he walks up the stairs to his office behind the main entrance, he looks over to his left & notices something he’s not happy about at all. The central area is still flooded up & now leaking down the lift.
‘Those contractors are in for it!’
Inside his office, he drops his gear in the closet, sinks into his office chair & begins collating last week’s records on tunnel 5’s output. He’s been leading all project management since he was a foreman & despite his vast experience & nearly unblemished track record over his career, he still gets nervous whenever he’s running a project. It’s the same butterflies in his tummy he hasn’t been able to get rid of, over the years. They’ve probably been responsible for his high performance, he reckons, so he’s not particularly bothered.
3 minutes go by & a tiny heap of reports have already piled up in front of him, on his heavily, document-littered desk; he still needs a few more before he meets up with his team, then phone the agency to break hell on the lousy contractors. Pictures of his daughter, when she was a child, hang behind him, on the wall. Portraits of his wife & son pose beside him. How time flies! Just yesterday, it seemed, he was throwing his daughter up in the air, as she always loved; now she’s about to graduate from college, with a major in cybernetic engineering & $23,000 debts. And his son, now a freshman on full scholarship at a leading private university, doesn’t stop calling & texting about the girl he’s newly fallen for, whom he’s this time convinced is the one.
Got it! The last pair of reports he’d been looking for. At the bottom of the pile as always, when you’re searching for something. Now, off to brief the guys. He shuts his office door but suddenly feels dizzy & an incredible pain in his chest – like a heavyweight boxing match for the world title, trying to break out of it. He feels feverish at the same time & is, inexplicably, getting out of breath. The day hasn’t even started & he usually only feels like this, half way through. It’s been a couple of months now like this, but he’s been shrugging it off as a normal thing that comes with age. At 59, he is entering a new phase in life & kissing his prime years goodbye.
It’s at the point, where he almost gets off the stairs, that he notices how pale his hands are, after wiping sweat from his forehead. Barely able to breathe, he blanks out within a few split seconds & falls head-first to the ground, all the way from the last three steps of the staircase.
The next thing he realizes is that he’s lying on a bed, without the usual sounds & noise in the atmosphere. ‘The day couldn’t possibly be over! Where did everybody go?’
Groggy, he opens his eyes, to notice he’s actually not even at work anymore. He’s in a private room that looks like a hospital. It’s filled with machines, medical equipment, a large window behind him on the left… & his wife sitting next to him, holding his right hand. He really is in a hospital… yet has no idea how he got there!
A doctor then comes in & talks to his wife. She tells her she would like to keep him a while longer, for observation & to run a few tests. His wife becomes agitated & his right hand is now squeezed. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ she asks the doctor, in a crackling voice. ‘We don’t know yet. At this point, it’s too early to say. The tests will narrow down diagnostics & confirm what will have to be done.’ the doctor replies. She continues, ‘Your husband has been running a high fever, his pale skin suggests, among other possibilities, anaemia. Because he’s a miner, we’re not going to rule out possibilities of developing rare forms of cancer that can be caused from inhaling asbestos.’
‘My husband has been working in the mine over 30 years! He couldn’t have any such thing!’ the wife exclaims. The doctor looks at her a bit surprised about her naïveté, then tactfully rebuts ‘Alright, but such diseases, if they are present, do take a very long time to fully develop.’, then pauses before she carries on. ‘Well, like I said. We’ll like to keep an open mind & run all necessary diagnostics as a precautionary measure… just to be sure! The tests will include but may not be limited to X-rays & CT/MRI scans. If all goes well, he should be out within a week!’
The miner closes his eyes again, in thought. ‘Seven whole days! That should take the leakage off my back & drive some other clown crazy!’
The doctor leaves the room & he begins to relax more. His chest still feels tight, but the boxing match is over for now. It was a probably a draw! ‘That fall should have taken me out. I feel like parts of my head are in a coma!’ he mumbles. His wife, meanwhile seated next to him again, looks up to him in shock. ‘You’re lucky to even be alive! The foreman found you on the ground, lying face down from the stairs. The 1st Aid struggled to get you back until the ambulance came & this is the 1st thing coming out of your mouth?’ she blurts out. She rapidly becomes so angry, her eyes fill with tears. She gets up, sharply turns away from him as she drops his hand in disgust, walks away from his bed, towards the door, leans her head back with both hands & breathes in deeply, then exhales, once. Great! Now, he’s ticked her off. He closes his eyes again, returning to his thoughts. ‘Fire in the hole! 3… 2… 1…’
She turns back to him, ‘If I were given a moment for every time I have put myself out there for you whenever you were in need, I would get two consecutive lifetimes to make up for myself, you ungrateful,… ungrateful,… you…!!’
He senses he’s going to have to diffuse the situation quickly or else the volcano will erupt! He gathers his strength, achingly leans forward and thereafter mumbles, ‘Darling… I had no idea.’ He stretches out his hand, ‘Come on honey… I’m sorry!’ His voice drenched in pain. She returns to her seat, wiping her cheeks, he lies back on his pillow & slowly exhales for a couple of seconds. ‘Sheesh! If I keep this up, I’ll take myself out!’
They hold hands again.
A few days go by & the couple is still together in the hospital room. The swelling on his head from the fall has reduced & his fever is gone. His chest doesn’t feel too great but he’s sure it’ll be fine. They just finished having lunch & are discussing how much time he’ll take off before returning to work. The door opens, it’s the doctor. They greet each other. His wife is not able to hide the smile on her face. She’s made her mind up today that they’ll be leaving, so she’s only expecting good news from the results. The doctor converses with the miner & checks how he’s feeling, while in the meantime another doctor walks in. A tall man, holding a large folder. The wife can’t make out what’s inside it but can recognize an X-ray sheet, peeking out. Instantly, without even trying to doubt herself, she concludes that it’s turned out to be more serious than she first thought. Her mood free falls quicker than the ’08 market crash. She struggles to keep a hold of her emotions again, sucking her lips in.
The doctor introduces the tall gentleman, ‘This is our resident diagnostics officer here at Memorial Hope.’ The officer politely nods at the couple, they nod back. She goes on, ‘After several hours of examining with the best medical team in the area…’ she pauses, then continues, ‘I’m afraid we’ve come to the conclusion that your condition is far more serious than initially anticipated.’
The miner slowly gulps what must feel like an oz of saliva, in fear. He’s as tough as can be & has taken his fair share of hits in life & kept going, but was honestly of the opinion they were, thank God, over. ‘Wait!’ he thinks. ‘Don’t thank him yet!’
The doctor then announces monotonously, ‘Our results conclusively confirm that you have Mesothelioma, a terminal cancer that is affecting your lungs. It has already spread to more than half its area. At this stage, you won’t have more than 8 months left!’
Immediately, the miner pants hard, then in the pain to speak, shouts to his wife, ‘Get me a bin!’
His wife, already burst up tears, grabs the paper bin from the corner & holds it in front of him. He flings his head just over the ledge & throws up right into it. His wife pats him on the back, throughout. ‘I’m really sorry! There’s nothing we can do. We have put together a treatment plan that you will be undergoing, which includes ingesting medication to ease the pain.’ the doctor says, trying to allay the despair in the hopelessness of the situation. The resident diagnostics officer, blushed with anguish, hunches down to his colleague & whispers, ‘This may not be such a good time to show the results, right?’
The doctor, obviously irritated by what she had just heard, gestures hurriedly with her hand that he leave, then consoles the couple.
A few minutes & a bin full of fresh vomit later, the wife, now whimpering uncontrollably, mutters, ‘We just finished puh… paying our mortgage. Our kids are taken care of… we were looking forward to a holiday cruise! Wha… wha… what are we supposed to do now?’, then cries heavily, all over again. This time being embraced by the middle-aged doctor. The wife sits down next to her husband when she gets a hold of herself again & clutches his hand, TIGHT! The miner responds, almost whispering, ‘In all of my life, I never thought this would happen to me. It’s always the other guy!’ while looking out of the window.
It’s a bright, sunny day. Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect to have a picnic, stroll through the park – smell the roses!
At that moment, an eagle lands onto the ledge, outside. Both the doctor & the miner momentarily notice the bird, a bit taken aback. The eagle looks through the window into the room, as if lost & unable to find what it had come to see. Then, unanticipated, the miner & the eagle both lock eyes & observe each other for a moment! The eagle then flies away.
The miner is left with a subtle impression. A couple of seconds later, he turns back. He clears his voice calmly, fighting tears from his eyes as he looks at the doctor, then begins, ‘Tell me doc… What can we do over the next period? Less than a year ain’t a mighty long time!’ He holds his face & finally breaks down to let the tears run their course. Joining his wife, who has been quietly sobbing all along. The doctor, now clearly affected by her patient’s misfortune, despite her professional experience, takes a step to his bed.
‘Find an attorney! Sue the pants off your employer! It’s a long shot taking it up through the union & you don’t enough time now anyway!’ She stops abrupt, conscious of possibly being insensitive. ‘I don’t know how to say these things… just fight for your right through a good Mesothelioma lawyer. File a lawsuit that will make up for everything you’ve lost.’
She turns to the wife & squeezes her hand in sympathy, then looks on to the miner & says, ‘You’re in my prayers!’, then leaves the room.
It’s been four days since the diagnosis. The couple are out of hospital, the miner is with his wife at a prominent law firm, in the larger, neighboring town, 40 minutes drive away from home. They have been referred to the firm by the doctor, who personally inquired for a really good attorney from her ‘friends at the top’ of Memorial Hope Hospital. When she found one & contacted the lawyer, she pleaded that he handles their case pro bono, as a personal favor to her. In the phone call she said, ‘They’re really good people. Life can be so cruel sometimes. It’s a crying shame what happened to them, a real tragedy!’
The couple just finished telling the lawyer their story. He’s sitting at his desk, across them, in his corner office overlooking the metropolis skyline. He has been listening intently, without ever interrupting. All through the narration, he had been nodding, while twisting his Mont Blanc pen around his fingers. The miner’s wife, who’s meanwhile become cynically disposed to life itself, stares at the lawyer from her chair, almost menacingly. Her eyes are dreary but alert. It’s evident she has been crying profusely over the past couple of days. The creases beneath her eyes are contoured deeper into her face & she now looks 10 years older. The miner himself is still pale, but now as composed as he usually is. There used to be a youthful vigor about him; that’s all gone. Nowadays he appears frail; a shadow of his former self. Like a man his age, working in the service sector, or so.
The lawyer discreetly clears his throat. His face looks like he’s in heavy brainstorming. Gently, he lays his pen in front of him. ‘What has happened to you is a case of extreme worker negligence. You have been working in hazardous conditions, from which you were not personally protected in adequate measures, over your 30 year career. A rare disease which you could have been prevented from developing, now severely affects you & is in its final, terminal stages.’ he says. ‘This leaves you with leverage over your employer, to seek the maximum compensation for your losses, both health-wise & financial.’
Then he stops for a moment. The miner’s wife, who in the past week has lost all of her natural optimism & become severely bitter from the cards life has played her, opens her eyes noticeably wider, despite her skepticism. The lawyer proceeds, ‘There are four ways to go about this, one of which will be the most realistic method to get us to succeed in our legal proceedings. You have to understand that because your disease has developed so late, the other options may not have as great a chance to win your case as the actual one. Think of it like trying to accelerate a car from standstill, in the second gear or even third, if possible, when the highest & most effective amount of torque comes from the first gear.’ The miner nods his head in understanding, knowing exactly what he means.
‘Mesothelioma lawsuits are complex & every case is unique & cannot be generically given a one-size-fits-all solution. Cases can be broadly categorized in four areas, though. Product liability, professional malpractice, worker compensation & wrongful death. From what your doctor has already told me, in addition to your elaborate statements, I recommend we sue for worker compensation. It is the most befitting litigation in your circumstance so, to give you an example, it will be proven that the mining group would have exposed you to asbestos, illicitly during your job. The company will therefore be fully responsible for your tragic incident & will be made to pay a very high sum in compensation. If a strong case is made, which we will put forward, the management executives will have nowhere to run to, because even if they file for bankruptcy, federal injunctions could be pulled to effect the complete payment. It’s bulletproof! And as a personal guarantee… I’ve been working in this field for 25 years. I understand it from the inside out. My reputation precedes me in the industry. I have strong ties with unions, agencies & health-care providers nationwide. I’m not saying this as an audition to you. I’m saying it because I want you to know who you’re dealing with,… and what it means when I say that I’m going to personally make sure that you both get your entitled compensations to the maximum we can squeeze out of them. I’m going to do everything I can. Let’s suck them dry… off the record!’ The miner manages to reveal a relieved smile. His wife becomes elated, gets emotional again & rushes for some tissue out of her handbag, while she strenuously grips herself together again. With all the crying she has been doing ever since, you’d think she would have become good at it by now!
The miner reaches over & rubs her back. The lawyer had seen it all, but in all the years he had been working with asbestos victims, he’s never been able to get over the raw nature of pure human emotion – the grief, the anguish he’s experienced in every case. Every single one. Every one had a profound story to tell. None of the clients could truly understand WHY but they all shared one thing in common; they had all been afflicted by an ordeal so catastrophic, that simply none of them ever thought it would happen. But it did & that had become their reality.
The lawyer himself is doing fine. He owns a Carrera & a 5-bedroom, countryside villa in the high-brow parts of town. Business is good & he’s been securing his retirement annually with well cared for investment portfolios. His wife, a former national beauty pageant finalist, owns & runs a thriving cosmetics retail chain, which spans across 3 countries. They have no kids. He’s in his mid-sixties. He’s developed a thick skin from weathering the failures & riding out the successes in the industry. Nonetheless, all his material wealth never totally insulated him from the powerful emotions of simple despair. Every time his clients ‘had a moment’, it psychologically scooped a chunk out of him as well. And no success can protect you from that! Like inhaling passive smoke: It sucks the life out of you in trickles, exponentially confirming your death sentence… by cancer.
Empathizing with the wife, the lawyer reaches into the bottom drawer of his mahogany desk, brings out a box of luxury tissues & hands it to the miner’s wife. ‘We thank you sir, we really appreciate your help!’ the miner says as his wife grabs a handful of tissue out the box & tries to stop a seemingly unrelenting flow of tears. ‘This is just a difficult time for us. We’re faced with so much,…’ the miner swallows, inhales & exhales once, then continues in his ailing voice; one that’s had the joys of a long life evaporated from overnight, in large amounts. ‘We don’t know where to go from here, so we’re just putting everything to God.’ A shallow smile briefly surfaces on his face. ‘He’ll be our support!’
The lawyer adds, ‘Given the extraordinary circumstance surrounding you, your doctor urged me to be lenient on your legal fees & I agree. I have therefore determined to represent you, as promised… pro bono!’
The miner flashes his eye-brows as his eyes light up. He clearly cannot believe what he had just heard. His wife, half way in control of her tears now, chips in with a slightly cynical undertone, ‘He must be supporting us already!’ as she chuckles, while her husband, keeping his eye-brows raised, smiles at her. The lawyer too, but in a defensive, guarded demeanor. ‘God bless you, sir!’ the miner says. His wife in a monologue speaks semi-melancholic, ‘In the depths of your tribulations & miseries, an angel often appears…’ Looking out the windows, she begins to hum melodically & drifts into an absence – her new found way of dissociation.
The lawyer presents the miner the contracts & goes over them, while regularly glancing at the miner’s wife who seems to make no efforts to return to ‘reality’. Her humming in the place she’s at is just about good enough for her. She’ll stay there a while, if only for a moment. It will summon the strength she needs in herself to continue living out this nightmare. A moment at a time. The miner signs in the spaces where the lawyer’s index finger moves to. When he finishes, they both rise & shake hands while the miner’s wife, dismayed snaps out of her spell. What could actually be worse: That place or reality?
She gets up while grabbing her husband’s arm, braves a brief smile to the lawyer, without shaking hands with him. The couple make their way out of the modern office complex that houses several law firms, consultancies, an accounting firm & an S.E.O. marketing company. All that swarms around are people in suits & business skirts, walking in & out of the entrance in a frenzy… followed by a couple of casually dressed, obvious geeks. Arm in arm, the senior pair closely hold each other, while they slowly walk through the parking lot to their truck. They gently enter the vehicle; his wife pulls out the keys & ignites the truck. It’s an old Durango. They reverse out the parking space & make their way home.
A week later, a worker compensation lawsuit is filed against the mining group by the couple’s lawyer. Five days later, the hearings begin, as promised. The lawyer forwards a powerful case against the defendant. The miner at first was at the opening of the case, but subsequently stopped appearing due to his treatments supervised by his doctor at Memorial Hope. His children were now also present with their parents throughout the medical schedule. They were told the news when their parents felt they had everything ‘under control’, much to the anger of their daughter. A week into his treatments, the miner stopped responding to medicines administered & deteriorated rapidly health-wise. At this point, he swiftly became hospitalized again. His family, not missing a single event, cried in torment through it all. Two days later, he passed on. His family mourned privately for days & buried him at the end of that week. If God rests on that day, they decided, he will too! They say when you die, your life flashes before you. It seems to be no different when someone you love dies, too. All you keep on seeing are pictures of every little, precious time you shared with that special person throughout your life together. Like they fill your mind up & all you see are real images & living memories of that person, in one gigantic, virtual reality simulation in a vivid, high-definition, cinematic experience in 3D.
During the legal proceedings, a further lawsuit was charged against the mining group. It was the litigation of ‘wrongful death’. The family appeared at every court date throughout their inexplicable grief. After a period of four months, the jury, by unanimous decision found the defendant guilty on all charges & ordered them to pay an astronomical sum to the plaintiff’s family, as well as to incur the legal fees of the entire case, in full. When the lawyer embraced the widow, her daughter & son, he said ‘This case may have set a record in payouts from Mesothelioma litigation but it will never fill the canyon of loss you feel in your hearts. I just hope the river that flows at the bottom of it, will be a piece of mind you will reach to, once your pain is dispersed!’
The widow faintly looks up to him & replies ‘Pain? The real judgment was already passed when my baby died.’
As she grabs her handbag & moves in front of her kids, she carries on ‘We have already become sentenced to pain. We have just became its warden now… because money never takes away the pain of the loss of a loved one, but it may ease it.’ As she slowly walks out of the courtroom corridor, her daughter, now the tallest in the family, wraps her arms around both her mom & her little brother.
Outside the courthouse, a small group of local reporters have amassed & haste towards the family upon first sighting. A barrage of questions are asked simultaneously while camera lights are flashing & an electronics store worth of microphones, phones & audio recorders are shoved in the family’s faces, which visibly upsets the daughter as she tries to keep her cool. A security guard from the courthouse springs to their rescue & backs the reporters off. A question a journalist yells, behind the 6″6ft sturdy frame of the security guard, sounds, ‘Do you feel you have been given justice?’ At that point, the daughter, who can’t control herself anymore, from the gross insensitivity of the press to their situation, stops, turns to the reporters & shouts ‘Justice? What do you care? You’ll get your story anyway! And the crimes will continue to be committed by other organizations that will make ten-fold in turnover of what is paid in our ‘record’ compensation. Another person gets infected & the cycle continues.’ She breaks down into tears now & screams angrily, ‘WHAT DO YOU CARE ABOUT MY DAD? HE’S JUST ANOTHER ASBESTOS & MESOTHELIOMA STATISTIC!’