In a cupboard in my kitchen, a small, white plastic basket holds 15 containers of sunblock. These bottles are part of my arsenal against the sun. With a minimum SPF of 50—one is even 100—I slather the different creams on my family at the beach, on vacation, during sports games, nearly every time we’re out in the sun.
To some, 15 bottles may be excessive, but I grew up in 1980s New Jersey, the land of big hair and baby oil, where I remember lying out in the sun on summer days without any protection. Instead, I had wishful thinking—the delusional thought that my Irish, Northern European fair skin would tan like the Italian girls I sat next to math class. It never did. I burned instead, a bright, painful red that kept me awake late into the night, as my skin throbbed and stayed hot. Then, I would peel, shedding my outer layer as my body rejected my attempts to transform myself.
My father had similar stories from his teenage years. He grew up in the 1950s, a star athlete and only son, with hazel eyes and charm that dazzled the girls. He spent his free time during the summer at the beach, flirting and swimming. He often spoke about the time he fainted in church, struck down by sun poisoning after a day at the New Jersey shore. It was that time before sunblock and even an awareness of the hazards of the sun upon our skin. Without any protection, he received a sunburn that blistered and made him sick, causing him to collapse in the middle of a mass, his mother right beside him.
He told me this story in between surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy treatments for a late-stage melanoma that would kill him at only 61. As the cancer spread from a small spot on his back to his lungs and eventually throughout his body, he also recounted afternoons, during my childhood, cutting the lawn in our backyard, sitting on his yellow ride-on mower, without a shirt or sunblock.
This time wasn’t any more evolved than my father’s teenage years in terms of sun care. That baby oil I remember sat on the grocery shelf next to sunscreen with a SPF of 4, maybe 8. The priority was on tanning. Commercials and advertisements celebrated products like Bain de Soleil, which would help you achieve that deep, “St. Tropez tan,” as the jingle went. A tan was healthy, we were told, and we scrambled to comply with these ideals. If scientific data about the dangers of sun exposure were receiving media coverage, we didn’t pay attention. We teased our hair and worked on our tans; my father cut the lawn in the hot, humid sun, listening to the Yankees on his beat-up, black transition radio, a sunburn slowly spreading across his back.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, snuck up on my family. We didn’t know anything about it until my father’s diagnosis. Even realizing he had cancer was a fluke: my parents, unable to agree on what to watch on television one night, flipped channel by channel, unexpectedly landing on a special about skin cancer. When pictures of melanoma were shown on the screen, my mother became afraid. They looked like something on my father’s back.
Ten years later, after countless rounds of chemotherapy, clinical trials, and experimental treatments, my father died—from a cancer that could have been prevented. In fact, the majority of skin cancer is preventable. According to skincancer.org, 90 percent of skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Protecting yourself and your family from the sun, therefore, is one of the best ways to stay safe from skin cancer. Yet the rates of skin cancer are rising; each year in the United States, “there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.”
My 15 bottles of sunblock are, along with hats and swim shirts, normal parts of my family’s life now. I celebrate each time a day spent outside goes by without anyone getting a sunburn. I am happy when my children are pale at the end of the summer, no tan lines in sight. I have vowed that they will never spend a lazy summer afternoon, lying on the deck, like I did, willing the sun to radiate their skin.
Another part of my family’s life is loss, thanks to skin cancer. After my father died, I spent a lot of time thinking about the things that wouldn’t happen. I counted them like my son counts Pokémon cards: slowly and methodically, examining them from all angles. I went through this ritual partly to torture myself, and partly because I hadn’t yet accepted my changed reality. Over and over, I listed what was still to come and what would never be: I will never dance at my wedding with my father, I will never have another Christmas with my father, my children will never know my father. The list of nevers was endless, and I was easily undone by the moments that made me face them.
One of those happened about two months after my father died, on a cloudy midwestern afternoon. Wearing a long, iridescent purple skirt, sparkly top, and silver sandals, I was the maid of honor in a friend’s wedding, standing next to her as she said, “I do.” I later danced at her beach-themed wedding reception, where guests were given sunglasses as favors and Beach Boys songs dominated the musical selections. On a break from dancing, I turned to her. “When are you doing the father-daughter dance?” I asked, as I spied her parents across the room.
The bride shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really care if we do it,” she answered before plunging back into the crowd on the dance floor.
I stood, so still, amid the celebrating, willing myself not to cry, biting the inside of mouth until I tasted blood, so the tears would stop. At that moment—and truly, still today, nearly 16 years later—I would have given anything for a dance with my father, or for just one more moment with him.
My list of nevers hasn’t changed over the years—if anything, it’s become longer—but I have learned to channel the loss differently. As I spread sunblock on my children’s arms and backs, I tell them about their grandfather. I tell them how he loved the beach and playing baseball, how he could fix anything and what joy I had when he laughed at my jokes. I make sure they know how much of him is in them. I keep those 15 bottles of sunblock to be prepared and to make sure we remember.