When John Murray came home to his family at the end of his shift as a steamfitter in New York, he handed his wife a bag of his work clothes. With their three young sons playing underfoot, Mary dumped the asbestos-coated jeans and shirts into the washing machine.
The dark blue clothes were white from the asbestos that lined the vents he’d been crawling through as he worked in the buildings of New York — the World Trade Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral among them.
There was so much of the stuff, Mary remembers, John later recalled how he and coworkers patted it into asbestos “snowballs” and threw them at each other.
John and Mary and their three sons had a happy life. Mary says John worked hard, but he never wanted her to worry about that, so he didn’t talk about his job. His shifts started early, so he was home early enough to spend time with their sons. He coached track and swimming. Although he hated camping, he even became a Boy Scout leader. He was active in the Knights of Columbus and the Elks. He loved the Yankees and the Green Bay Packers. His heroes were Vince Lombardi, Mayor Bill Daley of Chicago and labor union leader George Meany.
Mary, who most people call Maureen, was a housewife and she loved every minute of it.
They knew each other in grammar school, but John was two years older, and so they had different groups of friends back then.
When Mary was 19, she was at an ice cream parlor with a friend, and John walked in with his best friend, Patrick. Mary was dating someone else at the time, but she agreed when John asked her and her friend to join them for ice cream sodas. And when he invited her to a picnic, she agreed.
She broke up with the other guy, and she and John started dating. John’s mother taught Mary how to cook. They were married in October 1961. Ten months later, she had their oldest son, Paul. Sixteen months after that, John David was born. They bought a house in Queens and their youngest son, Kevin, was born when Mary was 28.
John wanted to go to college to be an engineer, but his father told him he had to be a steamfitter. His uncle was the head of the plumber’s union and his father worked as a steamfitter. Mary isn’t sure why John’s father insisted that he work as a steamfitter, but thinks it could have been the money situation at the time.
John was active in the steamfitters union and retired when he was in his early 60s. Mary said the union was a family, a brotherhood of hard-working men.
Around 1985, there was news coverage of problems with asbestos. The steamfitters were told to get checked by doctors. John was diagnosed with asbestosis. “It concerned him deeply,” Mary says. “As time went on, he was losing his friends to lung cancer. That was very sad for him.”
John was healthy. He walked every day and didn’t smoke or drink.
John and Mary moved to Florida and John took up golfing. They loved their lives in the Sunshine State.
But then one day, John wasn’t feeling well. He went to the doctors and he was told he had pneumonia. They gave him antibiotics and sent him home. Later, they called and said he needed a heavier dose and he should see a pulmonologist.
The next day, he went to the specialist, who drained fluid from John’s left lung. It was red. The doctor told John he had cancer.
John never gave up, Mary says. He still went for walks every day, and would talk to people along the way, especially people with dogs. He loved dogs. Mary thinks he knew every dog owner in Florida.
At one point, a surgeon took a biopsy of John’s lung and sent it to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The results came back as lung cancer, with a suspicion of mesothelioma. “That gave him a little light and hope,” Mary says. “You can deal with lung cancer. You can’t deal with mesothelioma.”
Four days later, the report was back. Mary remembers the surgeon came into the consult room and told John he had mesothelioma. The surgeon told John to get a good lawyer. And then he walked out of the room.
“We got home and he sat me down and said, ‘I could die in a week, or I could die in 10 years. We will live our life every day.’ “
John started taking heavy doses of a powerful chemotherapy drug. Mary would take him home from treatment and although he’d be a little weak, he would never get sick. He never lost his hair. He loved to eat fish, so she gave him fish.
He went to church six days a week, but never on Sundays. He told Mary he liked the quiet of the other Roman Catholic services. He always sat in the same seat.
John worked with attorney Patti L. Burshtyn at Weitz & Luxenberg, who helped him remember important, decades-old information, and then get through grueling days of depositions. He did what he had to do to make sure Mary was taken care of, Mary says. He did it for her and their entire family.
Burshtyn was really good with John, Mary says. Mary sat in on the final of five days of deposition testimony and was impressed. “She protected him so well,” Mary remembers. “If they asked a question that was improper, she went right after them.” Burshtyn, Mary believes, “just wanted the best” for John.
Their last trip home to New York was a grueling travel experience over Christmas in 2013. When they got back to Florida, they went to see the oncologist. The doctor put John’s X-rays on the screen. They were all white. “I knew right away it was really, really bad,” Mary says.
“John, we can’t do anything more for you,” the doctor said. “I would suggest you have hospice.”
John “really thought he was going to get better,” Mary says. They went home and took each day as it came. But John began to visibly deteriorate. Still, he made jokes. He would joke about getting out of the shower. He called his oxygen setup his chariot.
John didn’t want to get hospice help. But Mary said she couldn’t do it alone. So the hospice worker came and drained the blood from a port in John’s back.
Toward the end, John asked Mary to take him to church. His friends were there from church, as they always were. And when John got up to take Communion, they all stood up. His friends, Bernie, John, and George, along with the group of Vietnamese women who were there every day — they stood up and clapped for John.
“That was the last time he went to church,” Mary says.
One day, when Mary was helping him dress, John told her he didn’t want any dark shirts; he wanted something cheerful. He seemed to be choking. He started to cry. John never cried, not even at the deaths of his parents and sister. “I put my arms around him. I said, ‘Are you ok? Are you afraid?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not afraid.’ He said, ‘I’m afraid for you.’ I thought I would die.”
Maybe a day after that, their house was full of family and friends downstairs. Upstairs, on the bed, John had a nosebleed, and then the blood started coming from his mouth. They called hospice. Mary said not to bring an ambulance, but to bring a transport vehicle.
The grandchildren were shielded in a closed room when they lifted John onto the gurney. “Everybody was crying in the kitchen,” Mary says. “I didn’t. I didn’t cry a lot. It helped me stay strong.”
John was taken to the hospice where he had a beautiful room. They started him on morphine and visitors poured in to see him. Their son came with granddaughter Erin, who sang the song, “Let It Go,” for her grandfather.
After a few days, John told Mary not to talk one morning. She later realized he needed to save his breath long enough for their sons to arrive. The nurse practitioner walked in and told her it was time. And so she called New York and told them to come now. The entire family was around him.
A hospice volunteer, a former Marine, walked in with his Labrador retriever named Holly. Mary told the man John had been in the Marines. The volunteer brought Holly over to John and had her put her nose right up to John’s. The volunteer pointed his finger down and Holly stayed for about 14 seconds, just a few breaths, Mary says. Then the volunteer put his finger up, and Holly backed away from John. At that moment, Mary says, John died.
John donated his body to science, Mary says, with the hope of helping find a cure to this horrible disease.
Because of the help John and Mary received from Weitz & Luxenberg, Mary says, she is now able to live comfortably, although her needs are few. She is also making sure their grandchildren are educated in good schools.
Mary encourages others who are affected by asbestos exposure to take advantage of the legal help that’s available. Even people who aren’t ill can feel the effects later in life.
To this day, Mary and her sons have to get regularly checked. Mary said she has a CAT scan every year and her sons have to be monitored because of all that time she spent putting those asbestos-coated work clothes in the washing machine.