Watch Us Rise(2)

“Are you seriously giving us another summer challenge?” I ask. It’s not the first time Dad has sent us on a summer scavenger hunt of the city, but usually it’s a little more thought out. Like the time he sent us out with a map of Harlem and challenged us to find historical landmarks and spaces essential to the Harlem Renaissance. We had to take a photo in front of each place as proof. And then there was the time he challenged us to only go to movie theaters that showed independent films. We had to share our findings and write reviews. We’re used to him sending us out with maps and a list of instructions. But I didn’t expect this today.

“Let’s call it the Brown Art Challenge,” Dad says.

We all just look at him, blank stares.

“I’m serious. You want to show how much you love and care about me? Keep living,” he tells us. “Go out and find some inspiration. Create some art in response to what you see.”

Chelsea is the first to agree, saying, “Where should we start?”

And just like that, the four of are sitting with Dad plotting and planning: Bronx Museum, Studio Museum, El Museo del Barrio. “And bonus points to the person who can surprise me with a place that’s not on the list,” Dad says. “But not the Schomburg Center. That would be cheating.” Dad works at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and in some ways, it’s my second home. I love it when an exhibit is just about to open and Dad brings me, Jason, and Mom to see it before anyone else.

Mom comes home with my brother, Jason, who is eight. He’s been at summer camp all day and doesn’t know about Dad yet. Mom gives me a look that tells me my company has to leave. And I wish they could stay because that would delay the moment my brother finds out that our dad is going to die. That would keep in these tears that want to fall so bad. I have been swallowing them since Chelsea, Nadine, and Isaac showed up. No matter how much Dad is trying to keep things normal with his New York City scavenger hunt, no matter how much we all try to laugh at his corny jokes, these tears are here. Pressing against my chest.

Mom says hello to everyone and takes Jason upstairs. She looks tired and worried and not like my mom at all.

Dad stands. “Thank you all for coming over.”

We walk to the door. Chelsea opens her mouth, I think to say goodbye, but instead an avalanche of tears falls. And then Nadine starts. Isaac is looking down at the hardwood floors. Just staring.

“It’s okay to cry,” Dad says. “Feel whatever you need to feel. But listen, everything doesn’t have to change just because the cancer is back. You four are starting your junior year. I want things to be as normal as possible, just like every other school year. No matter what happens this year, you all need to stay focused, do your best. Don’t let me or any distraction get in your way,” he says. “You all are just beginning.”

Praise poem for the summer—-

by Chelsea Spencer

Here’s to the warmth & every yes.

To the grind of summertime

dripping cones & chlorine haze.

Here’s to float & exist, show up.

Every challenge accepted. Revival

in East Harlem. Freedom!

Fighters printmaking our past

to light up our present. We’re here.

The future of us.

How we study our ancestors.

Dance ourselves into existence.

Electric grind. See the struggles.

Together, we arrive, arms linked,

lungs loud as life. Our hearts

conjuring words

& poems. All of us riding each wave toward eclipses & ellipses always the ongoing. Always ahead.

Facing forward. Our lives a ripple a nonstop jump-start.

Making our mark.

No matter how hard I try, I will never look like the cover of any magazine . . . ?not that I want to, but well . . . ?maybe I want to just a little bit. This is the third outfit I’ve tried on this morning.

There’s a pile of T-shirts with my new favorite slogans on them: Cats Against Catcalls (with five super-cute kittens on the front) and one that says Riots Not Diets. I’ve tried them both on, mixing with biker boots and plaid pants . . . ?definitely not working. I try another look.

I take out my bag of makeup to choose the right shade of super-lush, kissable liquid lip color. I have been reading that fuchsia is the new “it” color for the fall, and that it really makes your lips pop, but the colors my mom picked up for me last week are not quite cutting it. I turn them over, making sure she got the right shades, and read: Pure Doll and Diva-licious. Ewww. The patriarchy is even showing up in the names of my lip gloss? Unbelievable.

The Spencer women have never won beauty pageants. My mom first said that to me when I was in the second grade and my best friend won the Mini Princess Contest at the New York State Fair. I was seven, and I had no front teeth, legs that rivaled a giraffe’s, and a fully grown nose. My mom also told me that a beauty contest was a totally old-fashioned way to judge young girls, and it was created by some sexist, corporate machine that was trying to get women to stay in their place.

She used the line again in the ninth grade when I wasn’t voted onto the basketball homecoming court. She took me for a hot fudge sundae and told me that women have to learn how to stand out with their words, with their fierce minds, and that courage lived in the actions we made, and not in our bra size or the texture of our hair.

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