Unlike my own children, who’ve had their every smile and tear documented on cameras and cell phones since birth, very few pictures exist of me as a child. One hangs in my hallway, an old black and white school photo of a tousle-haired rascal from the early 1970s that greets all visitors to my home. “Wouldn’t you think the teacher might have bothered to comb his hair and wash his hands before having that picture taken,” my mother sometimes laments during her visits. As a parent I’m inclined to agree, but as that little boy staring out of the picture, I wouldn’t change a thing. I love it for its imperfections – the untidy straw-like mop of hair, the smattering of freckles, the dirty fingernails – a prescient image of the unholy terror I’d shortly evolve into. And so, I was charmed when my sister, Nuala, recently sent me another old photo she’d dug out from somewhere, one I’d never seen before of an even younger me, maybe two, wearing a vest tucked into shorts and brandishing a little beach bucket for making sand pies, the rear wheel of my father’s old Renault just visible behind me, and beyond that, the sea.
Growing up in North Dublin back then, a real treat for us was heading off somewhere in Dad’s car on a Saturday or Sunday, often having pestered the poor man for hours beforehand. The six of us would noisily scramble into the back seat, the ‘three little ones’ sitting on the laps of the ‘three big ones’, such was the sibling hierarchy. A visit to our Grandmother in Ringsend or a ramble through St. Anne’s Park was not uncommon. But the crème de la crème of day trips was Dollymount Beach. Whilst some people got to go to the Costa del Sol – families with proper bank accounts and rust-free motorcars that didn’t need a good push to get them started on cold mornings – we went to the Costa del Dol. Thrilled just to be on any beach, we’d change into our bathing suits and frolic in the sand for hours.
Of course, we’d never heard of sunblock or sunscreen at the time. Back then it was marketed to grown-ups as suntan oil, the act of sunbathing still being considered a relatively harmless beautifying pastime. TV regularly informed us a tanned body was a healthy one as models slathered what looked for all the world like Crisp ‘n Dry all over themselves. Commercials for Coppertone or Ambre Solaire would show Adonis-like guys in bulging Speedos prancing about on the beach with gorgeous swim-suited models, all of them bronzed to a deep nut brown that allegedly accentuated their sex appeal. This effect was even more alluring when our mother finally splashed out for a Ferguson colour TV, despite Dad’s obstinate view that this was an unnecessary extravagance. Having spent years watching the snooker on our old black and white telly and mastering the art of identifying every single ball on the table based on shade alone, he felt utterly no inclination to evolve his viewing habits.
Seeing no real need for such fancy tanning products, we subsequently spent many a childhood summer traipsing around the beach without any sun protection. We’d return home from Dollymount at the end of the day, our milk bottle Irish skin burnt to a cinder, sore to the touch, and Mam would drown us in Calamine Lotion to help soothe the pain. A few days later we’d start moulting like snakes, taking turns to peel the skin off one another’s backs in long paper-like strips. This blasé attitude to sun protection followed me all the way through college and to Cape Cod in the Summer of ‘89. My buddies and I, travelling on J1 visas, piled into a semi-derelict house that soon became Hyannis Party Central, where we dedicated ourselves to the pursuit of beer and girls for three months. I got maintenance work in a nearby motel: watering and mowing the lawns, cleaning the pool, and occasionally salvaging the wreckage of rooms left behind by weekend party animals.
One of my tasks was to assemble a new gazebo on the motel grounds. “This’ll be fun,” I said to my co-worker, as we unloaded it in a thousand pieces from the back of a delivery truck. The only thing I’d ever built prior to that came out of a gift-wrapped Airfix kit. Putting it together in 90-degree heat was hot, sweaty work, so I stripped off my t-shirt. I think it was the sight of something actually brighter than the sun that caught the attention of the guests by the pool, tempting some of them to wander over and check out the freak of nature wielding the hammer.
“You’re doin’ a good job there, young man,” said one male guest, at least 60 years of age and 280 pounds in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. He sipped a cocktail as he walked around the gazebo inspecting my work.
“Thank you,” I replied, although I felt he was being a bit patronising. Hearing my accent, he asked where I was from. “Ireland. Just over for the Summer,” I said.
“Jeez, are all you Irish guys that white?” he asked, pushing his sunglasses up on his forehead to get a better look at me.
“I suppose a lot of us are,” I replied, feeling a little self-conscious now.
“Are you wearin’ any sunscreen?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Sure, I’m fine. Not a bother on me.”
“You know, you should really put on some sunscreen, dear,” said another lady, also obese, probably his wife. She’d even kindly brought over her own bottle for me to use and was eagerly extending it towards me.
“Thanks, but no,” I answered, digging my heels in, secure in my youthful invincibility.
“You sure? I mean, that sun can get pretty strong...”
“I’ll be okay. Seriously!” I said, waving them off.
Shaking their heads, probably convinced that I wasn’t playing with a full deck, they returned to their sun loungers. I looked pityingly after them as they plodded away, thinking to myself that they obviously had bigger health problems of their own.
Later that evening, one of the girls in our house kindly agreed to cut my hair. As she was snipping away, she suddenly let out a screech. “Jesus! What the fuck are those things?” She was pointing at the back of my neck, her face a picture of revulsion. Removing my t-shirt, I went into the bathroom mirror to see what had so alarmed her. The upper half of my body, now the colour of ground paprika, was throwing off enough heat to warm up a meat locker. Yellowish blisters the size of grapes, pregnant with pus, had formed all along my shoulders and upper back. An hour later I had my head down the toilet fighting waves of nausea and a blinding headache before succumbing to the most crushing bout of fatigue I’ve ever experienced. It was as if I’d suddenly been rendered boneless. I collapsed onto the bed and slept for an age.
“We tried waking you for a beer, man, but you were out of it!” the guys said after I finally came to, late the next day. I felt like I’d just crawled out of a blender. Every square inch of me ached. “We were getting seriously worried. Thought maybe you’d slipped into a coma or something.”
So, that was sunstroke! I thought.
I’d love to say that I kept a clean sheet on the sunburn front after that but it wouldn’t be honest. Although I was never one for sunbathing, I’d stubbornly refused to wear a hat in the sun for years in the belief that they made me look a bit daft, nor did I ever bother with sunscreen during my early forays on the ski slopes. Snow, so I discovered there, acts just like a UV lamp. The fact that these ski trips took place during the activity breaks in biomedical research conferences in the Rockies, where I was an attendee with an actual PhD, makes this lack of sun care even more foolish. In truth, I didn’t properly start bothering with sunscreen until well into my thirties when I finally conceded the connection between UV exposure and the increasing frequency of my cold sore outbreaks. Ageing, of course, like acid rain, inevitably erodes the surface of things to reveal what lies beneath. The first lesion appeared in my mid-forties, a painful reddish perforation high on my left cheek that refused to heal. Pretty soon they were sprouting up on my temples and around my face like unbidden poppies puncturing the skin from the inside out. I’d also begun to feel an unpleasant stinging sensation along the crown of my head, my hair having started to abandon ship some years earlier. My comb had begun to feel like a nailbrush ploughing furrows through my bumpy scalp.
The first time I went to my dermatologist I was actually hoping to meet ‘The Ziz’. Living and working in New York during the ‘90s, I regularly stared up at the smiling, cherubic face of Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, the famous New York dermatologist, who regularly leased advertising space in subway carriages. Dr. Z had the kind of sweet face that could never give you bad news, I reasoned. A face like that would politely enquire how your mother was doing and tell you Knock, Knock jokes. Such a face would send you on your way with one of his patented facial cleansers and heartfelt instructions to enjoy a rich and fulfilling life before checking back with him in, say, five years’ time.
My dermatologist turned out to be a tall striking man in surgical scrubs with a distinctly no-nonsense countenance that gave one the distinct impression of having seen it all before and had long since ceased wondering at the foolishness of humans when it came to sun protection. Cutting to the chase, he took one glance at me and diagnosed me with something called actinic keratosis.
“It’s a form of skin pre-cancer that stems from early sun damage,” he said, “You have quite a bit of it. We need to treat it vigorously to prevent it progressing into something even more serious.” I just stared back at him. All I heard was the word CANCER, a word that classified one as an imminent absence.
“It’s quite common in Irish people,” he added, noting my shell-shocked appearance.
“Am I in any real danger here?” I asked, my voice trembling.
“Well, not in the immediately life-threatening sense that you’re thinking of,” he explained, “I’m more concerned you might have to get something cut off somewhere down the road if we don’t take a robust approach now, maybe part of your nose or a bit of an ear.”
The Ziz would’ve been way more tactful than that, I thought.
“Okay,” I said, bracing myself, “So, what’s next?”
“Do you have anywhere important you need to be for the next few days?” he said, picking up a sinister looking metallic spray bottle.
This expression I would soon come to learn was dermatologist lingo for, ‘When we’re done here, you’re going to look like The Elephant Man for the next few days. You should probably wear a sign around your neck and carry a bell if you go outdoors.’
He then set to work liberally spraying liquid nitrogen onto various parts of my face and scalp. He also biopsied an area on my right cheekbone that would unavoidably leave behind the facial equivalent of a lunar crater.
We went back and forth on this approach for about eighteen months before he sat me back down and said, “Listen, you’re on the wrong side of 50 for us to be just randomly weeding in the garden here. We need to start treating this thing with weed killer.” My eyes widened as I visualised him breaking out a cannister of Roundup. “I’m going to put you on a form of topical chemotherapy,” he continued, “It’s strong stuff, but extremely effective at killing off precancerous sun-damaged cells. Going forward, you’ll need to use it periodically.”
“How strong is strong?” I asked, unable to keep the suspicion out of my voice.
“Well, if it’s working properly it’ll actually look like a dose of sunburn,” he said.
My dermatologist lingo detector instantly pinged again, and with good reason.
When your pharmacist, on handing you a prescription, walks around to your side of the counter and gently draws you aside to solemnly inform you that, “It’ll get a lot worse before it gets better with this stuff,” you know you’re in for a rough ride.
My stomach lurched as I read the accompanying literature which used words like ‘traumatic’ and ‘extreme’ to describe the outward physical responses to the medication, so I buried the prescription in the bottom of my desk drawer for three months, cravenly refusing to acknowledge its existence.
Eventually, I stumped up the courage to start using it and soon realised that what my dermatologist actually meant by ‘a dose of sunburn’ was, ‘Imagine the reddest tomato you’ve ever seen. Then imagine it blushing.’ A combination therapy, one cream contains a well-known anti-cancer compound, 5-fluorouracil, which worms its way into the DNA of pre-cancerous cells lurking just beneath the skin, and the second contains calcipotriol, a chemical that entices the body’s immune cells to then swoop in and finish the job. Its effectiveness, unsurprisingly, comes at a price.
After my first couple of treatment cycles, my face looked like I’d done ten rounds with Mike Tyson and my bare scalp felt like I’d been standing under a blow torch. I spent long periods staring at myself in the mirror trying to wish away the garish red inflammation as I vainly lamented the visible demise of whatever moderately good looks I’d once had stewardship of. Like Icarus, having flown too close to the sun, the final vestiges of my puffed-up sense of youthful invincibility had well and truly crash landed. (O’ mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who’s the unfairest of them all?) I knew that in time my skin would improve somewhat and I’d start to feel better, but in my mind a simple truth rang out loud and clear; if you’re looking for sympathy, you’ll find it in the dictionary somewhere after stupid. Venturing out of the house on occasion, I’d pass by the picture in the hallway, where I imagined the expression on that little boy’s face had now acquired a subtle hint of rebuke. You stupid fool, it seemed to whisper.
Notwithstanding the general awfulness of the recent COVID pandemic, one of the few things about lockdown that actually appealed to me was a sense of the world settling into a sort of hibernation, giving me permission, as it did, to hide away from others for a time in order to heal. Donning my baseball cap and plastering every square inch of my exposed skin with SPF-50, my morning run would usually take me some good distance along a tranquil country road near my home, where I took comfort in the near-complete absence of humanity. On one occasion, however, I ran into some close friends out walking their dog and felt compelled to stop and say hello. In the middle of a treatment cycle at the time, looking, as I must’ve done, like someone beaten half to death with the ugly stick, I sensed their uneasy gazes furtively taking in the mottled ruddy landscape of my face as we spoke. Hoping my embarrassment wasn’t too obvious, I felt profoundly relieved to bid them farewell and move on without having to explain. You complete gobshite! I mentally berated myself. You deserve a right slap for having done this to yourself.
Guilt, of course, is a caustic emotion to wallow in, and sometimes it takes the reactions of others to remind us that looks really are only skin deep; that the important stuff runs much deeper. A conversation with my older brother, Dave, reminded me of this. Unable to visit one another because of travel restrictions, he and I coped with pandemic life by having a beer together on Zoom for an hour every other week or so to talk about things: life, work, Covid, what’s playing on Netflix, the weather in New Jersey where he lives, the pitiful state of US politics, what beers we’re drinking, and occasionally, our health. One morning during this time I awoke with a huge cold sore on my lip. Shit! Must’ve missed that spot with the factor 50, I thought, looking in the mirror. I was furious with myself for this brief lapse in my now religious daily skin care regimen. I’ve always loathed cold sores and this one would’ve left a cauliflower in the shade. I was still feeling self-conscious about it when I logged onto Zoom a little early that evening for a beer with Dave to give myself time to experiment with adjusting the lamp and angling my chair so as to minimise my cold sore in the webcam. I thought I was doing a pretty fair job of it until my brother appeared.
“Whoa!” he brayed, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “I guess somethin’ took a big fuckin’ bite outta your lip, huh!”
Blushing, I smiled awkwardly, recognising it for what it was – the vocabulary of familial affection grounding me and reminding me that I needed to learn to be comfortable in my own skin again; that it’s good to be alive.
“Piss off!” I shot back, good humouredly. Then cracking open a beer, I pulled my chair closer to the screen and we got on with the all important business of two middle-aged guys setting the world to rights.
Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born academic and writer living in rural County Kildare. His short stories and essays have been long/short-listed in various international competitions, including runner-up (2020) and shortlist (2022) for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize. His writing has featured in various anthologies and literary magazines including The Galway Review, The Dillydoun Review, Fictive Dream, Books Ireland, and Storgy.