I never had the opportunity to know my father.
What I do know is that I learned from stories I was told: I know he was tall, I know he had eyes the color of an Australian summer sky . And I know he died after stage 4 melanoma spread to his bones in his thirties.
At 12, sitting with my school skirt pulled up as high as I dared, pale legs stretching out in the sun, I didn’t care about the last fact. Like the characters in the fairy tale book he left me, he was made up of bits of my imagination. What hurt him couldn’t hurt me; it was just a sad story.
I wanted to be golden and brunette like the girls I saw in magazines and movies, so I put on a bikini, lay in the hot sun and tried to get a tan. I remember spending hours in my garden, sweat rolling down me, feeling proud of the red sunburn and furious because it meant that once healed, I would be one step closer to being beautiful.
I had a basic understanding that every burn was damage done, but that didn’t matter, I didn’t need SPF or a hat. What hurt him couldn’t hurt me.
But Cancer likes to take hostages. Just before my 16th birthday, my mother, who had raised me on her own after losing her partner, noticed something wrong with a freckle on the back of her leg. As far back as I can remember, she had always had that freckle, but it had changed, it had become darker and bigger. It was stage 3 melanoma and while I lay in the sun and walked around without a hat because I wanted blonder hair, she was trying to figure out how to tell me. In the end, I figured it out myself after seeing his Google search history.
The seriousness of the situation did not strike me until much later. I was scared, I was confused but I didn’t cry until I told my best friend. We strolled through the oval at school, the beginnings of summer heat kissing our unprotected skin. I think I got sunburned that day.
You never realize how strong your parents really are until you have to watch them go through something like this. My mother has always been a fighter, but beneath the surface I couldn’t help but think she was as scared as I was when she announced she would have to travel to Sydney for surgery to remove the mole and some lymph nodes. in his leg.
It broke the floodgates as all the worst case scenarios went through my head. I had no right to stay with her and it broke my heart as I returned to Canberra. When she finally came home on Christmas Eve, we hugged and cried.
My mother spent days in pain, days frustrated and angry with the world, but five years later we finally got the green light. We were lucky she didn’t need chemotherapy, but she did have a significant portion of her leg muscle removed. She hates the scar, finds it ugly but it’s still there and that’s what matters to me.
I’m ashamed to say that even after her surgery, I ventured outside without basic sun protection until late 2019 when another possible melanoma was discovered on my mother’s nose. Looking at the grief on his face, the cry of ‘it’s not fair’ in his eyes when the subject of possibly getting it cut is what finally fell my the skin.
The irony is that a year later, it literally is. In 2020, a small, cute freckle on my belly suddenly became petrifying as it got bigger and darker.
At first I watched him, blaming his change on anything but the possibility of cancer, exclaiming “That’s GOOD” when panic started tickling my thoughts. Then finally, after months of procrastination, I went to the doctor for a skin exam.
I never thought this would happen to me, but a week later I anxiously awaited the biopsy result with stitches in my stomach. The doctor said the scar would look like a pregnancy stretch mark if I didn’t need to remove more.
In the end, I was lucky because the results came back marked as “precancerous”. However, if I had left it, as I wanted, things could have been different.
Now mom has had another melanoma surgically removed from her shoulder and is waiting for another one to be removed from her ankle.
What hurt my dad didn’t end up hurting me, but it still hurts someone else I love very much and it’s taken me years to realize the emotional and physical impacts she still faces . That’s what I found most devastating when, for a brief moment, I faced the same fight.
As summer continues, I no longer mark my success with red skin but rather its absence. Instead of worshiping forced golden skin, I romanticize how my legs match the white seashells on the hot sand.
I still love the Aussie sun, but now I keep it at bay.
I hope my father would be proud.