Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A touch of the tar brush

Nobody ever talked about my black great-grandmother. In fact, if I hadn't been quite so good at eavesdropping I might never have known that I had a touch of the tar brush at all. But it's remarkable what a quiet child can find out by simply being quiet until people forget she's there.

(Yes, I am- and always have been- just dandy at being quiet as well as at being still, though many of my friends might roar laughing at the very thought.)

The being quiet came from my mother's side, the supposedly shameful blackfella from my father's. Being quiet has given me an enormous supply of material to write about, as well as some privileged information now and then; I've been sorely criticised for my silence many a time (particularly during my schooldays), but it's just one of the odd twists of my nature that makes me me. Now, as an adult, I see that my eighth-share of native Polynesian is probably responsible for many of my other quirks.

My passion for seafood. (I could live on it, easily; remember, even when we were in dire straights thanks to the chemotherapy, Ferdinand and I could still eat fish.)

My wavy-curly dark hair. (Yep, the hair that I miss so badly now, no matter how well the blonde Megwig flick-style suits me.)

My ever-so-unfashionable figure, which flatly refuses to resemble anything but a well-fed Polynesian earth mama. (And has done so all my life, regardless of diet or exercise; I've been such a star for the last two weeks, exercising every single day, and not a single ounce have I lost.)

My antipathy towards WASP formal ceremony, marriage included. (Walking out on my father's arm, I wondered what the hell I was doing there; it felt wrong in some way I couldn't identify for years. It had nothing to do with the choice of male. It was the whole ritualistic deal that didn't fit. God help you all if you ever dare give me a funeral in a church.)

But my native heritage is probably also responsible at some level for today's achievement award at radiotherapy, despite what the 'experts' tell me.


Segue to the nurses' rooms, post-treatment. I've just emerged from the change rooms, left arm aching, my chest slathered in cold aloe vera jelly which is sticking slightly to my hastily-donned clothes. The nurse who calls me in for my weekly check-up is a stranger; the staff down in radiotherapy continue my impression of public-hospital-as-manic-cuckoo-clock, with the faces changing daily. Continuity is at a premium.

I strip back down to bare-chestedness (why ever do they ask you to get dressed again between appointments, I wonder) and she inspects the condition of my skin.

It looks even paler some hours later...
"Well, that's excellent," she says. "There's some pinkness here, but the skin looks moist still and there's no sign of breakdown. What have you been using on it- just the sorbolene cream we gave you?"

"No, I bring fresh aloe vera leaves with me on an ice pack. I cut them and apply them as soon as my treatment finishes, then I use Moo Goo later on. And I use Vitamin E cream for massages on my underarm."

"That's great. You're doing absolutely everything right, and your skin looks fine. So, this is the end of your first week of radiotherapy?"

I look dumbfounded, I'm sure.

"No, actually. I'm two days into Week Three."

"You're kidding."

"I'm not."

The time has certainly flown. Tomorrow I'll be halfway through my radiotherapy.


The nurse picks her jaw up off the floor.

"That's amazing. All you've got to show for it is that little bit of pink. If your skin was going to break down, it'd have started to degrade by now. But it's not dry or flaking or blistering at all."

I just smile.

The nurse smiles, too. "I can see you're a fighter," she volunteers.

I resist the temptation to tell her the name of my blog.


It's a bit of a different story from the one I got from Dr Nobody yesterday. I'd thought the doctor's appointment set out on my schedule meant I'd be seeing Professor Power Ranger, but no; I got a bulk-bill style appointment with his registrar (think, what's the world record for strip, look, analyse, dress and push her out the door?).

And the aforementioned Dr Nobody was a true prophet of gloom, predicting that regardless of how great my skin looked now, it'd all fall apart by the time they were finished with me. Well, the 'Fighter' wasn't convinced by that- not at all. And when I tried to extract a rationale for his assessment of the situation, the waters became significantly muddy.

He tried to tell me it was cumulative, but that didn't seem to make sense given that my skin hasn't shown any reaction at all up till now.

So I asked him a few pertinent questions. No, the dose doesn't increase as time goes on- in fact, they take away the gel layers (a sort of cold-pack-like arrangement that goes on my chest during part of the treatment) and the dose gets administered deeper below the skin level. So the skin gets less wear and tear as time goes on, not more.

Go figure.

Somehow I think I prefer to believe the nurse on this occasion. Hey, the nurses are the ones who get to see the patients every single week and dress their burns. I reckon they might know a little bit more about likely progression of my skin's condition than Dr Who-the-Hell-are-You.


So the 'Fighter' is this week's star pupil, it seems. Or rather, my Polynesian skin is, in combination with the Bear's faith in cold, fresh aloe vera. Not that everyone will agree with me, of course. Some would say I'm just lucky.

I'd been told by the other nurses that cultural heritage had no bearing on how my skin would hold up- that skin reactions to rads are completely random and unpredictable. I've chosen not to believe that. Not in my case, anyway. I prefer to think of my heritage as an invisible shield between me and the Kraken; the touch of black in my skin refuses to be damaged and defeated by mere radiation.

Hell, my ancestors played in the New Caledonian sun for generations without sunscreen or sunburn. Why wouldn't I be protected too?

And so I thank the Fates for my touch of the tar brush. I'm doubly blessed, in that it's never been a problem for me. I don't look black, you know; you won't recognise it in me unless you're black yourself. The Aboriginal assistant at my work knew at once, without being told. None of the others did; they were 100% WASP. But she watched the way the black kids ran to me and trusted me at once. They knew, too.

So rather than being a burden, my black heritage is a gift. And it seems that some gifts are barely visible until you really need them.

Thanks, Great-Grandma. I'm not the least bit ashamed of you.


  1. "But my native heritage"

    What about your 7/8 "white" heritage?

    1. Maybe you should read the rest of my blog. One post about this amongst a hundred or more, and you're whining about me referencing the black in me? Go away, racist.