My boy is on the floor again. I’ve just told him he has to get in the shower, before dinner, after homework, after only five minutes of TV.
“What?” he protested in a drawn-out whine that contorted his face into a buskin tragedy mask before collapsing onto the floor. His body, prone and straight, swivels from side to side. He pulls his knees into his chest. Now he thrusts his feet down, then back, and almost behind him, as if doing a hamstring stretch. However he moves, thrashing, flailing, it is not vertical. To move up or around or about—even if stomping, even if screaming, even while crying out—would convey a sense of acceptance. “I don’t want to do what you ask, but I’m willing!” such a movement would say.
This is not that. This is a crumpling of will meant to convey a sense of overburdening. This is complete surrender to the despair he feels at sacrificing what he sees as his freedom. I won’t have it.
“Get up from the floor,” I say. “Get up. Remember? No laying on the floor.”
Some months prior, I had banned it from my home—really I’d just forbid him from doing it. As a seven-year-old, my son found reason to melt into the carpet like ice cream on hot pavement far too often. If he couldn’t figure out his homework assignment, knees on the ground; if I asked him to clean up his room, face on the floor; if his poor behavior forced me to withhold dessert, bellyflop down to the lowest horizontal level he could reach.
There was no picking him up once he fell to such depths. From his vantage point, all the purpose in striving or the efforts at attainment sat beyond his grasp. So why bother trying to reach for them? Instead, he lay on the floor where he felt free to fully manifest his unhappiness. He might cry down there; he often whimpered; and he almost always produced a moan so forlorn, mournful, and totally unwarranted for the circumstances that I felt compelled to snatch him up. Despite my requests, pleas, and, finally, shouted commands for him to arise, he could stay planked down for so long his stomach tightened into a tiny boy-belly six-pack.
But I could not allow the floor to represent for him a place he was pushed to in defeat, or even where he sank in sorrow. When I was his age, I watched as my grandfather made the floor beneath him a platform of his pride, a riser for his relaxation, a foundation of his freedom. And for me, more than thirty years later, that’s what it has remained. So I forbade anything but my son’s feet from hitting ground.
I am six or seven years old. I don’t know how old my grandfather is but his hair is a dash of salt with a few shakes of pepper. Seasoned.
My whole family and I had been with him on his last day of work some weeks or months ago. Saw his navy blue conductor’s cap poke out the window of the last New York City subway train he’d call into station. Greeted him as he reached his final destination. His train—wrapped in graffiti, surrounded by concrete—brimmed with commuters so adept at hiding reaction they could be the Queen’s Guard. But, there among them brightening the way, albeit after twenty-six years for the final time, was my grandfather with his effervescent smile.
Retired. Could there be a more perfect word? Poppi was tired. Really tired. I could see it whenever we visited his and Mama’s apartment, where they had raised four children, where they were now taking care of their second oldest grandchild, my teenage cousin, and where—as there was today—there always seemed to be a Mets game on TV, despite the roar of fans of the Bronx Bombers rising up from Yankee Stadium just a half mile away. Poppi watches Doc Gooden, Mookie Wilson, and Darryl Strawberry in their oddly formal, striped white uniforms, and I study his eyelids shutting for longer and longer periods.
“Poppi?” I call, leaning in to see if he’s awake. “Poppi.” And when he doesn’t answer, “I think he’s asleep,” I whisper to my little brother, relieved that we can finally change the channel.
“Hmmm? I’m awake. Just resting my eyes,” Poppi pipes up without lifting the back of his head from the couch cushion it’s nestled in. A few minutes more and a deep grumble bubbles up from his chest like a monster waking, an announcement of his intention to move.
“Gggrrrrrrr.” He pitches his body forward on my grandmother’s black velour couch and slides to one knee on the floor. “Rrrruuuumph.” He lets the other knee drop then unfolds himself, palms down, face flat on one side, into a slightly curved, knotted log on my grandmother’s ivory lambswool carpet. And there he lies. For hours. He doesn’t need a bed, a blanket, or a darkened room. He doesn’t care who sees him, who has to step over him, or what he misses by being asleep in the middle of the day. None of that matters because my grandfather is free. Truly free. He no longer has a boss to answer to, but even when he did, he was a man without burden. His is a freedom of body, mind, and deed.
People who meet him can’t see my grandfather’s sublime sprawl onto the floor, and yet from his easy smile, his breezy banter and gentle tone, even his mildly hunched saunter, they all seem to recognize in him exactly what it represents. His communion with carpeted ground epitomizes my grandfather’s core-emanating freedom. Perhaps it comes from being raised by people with firsthand knowledge of enslavement who were suddenly granted sovereignty to decide their own fates in a state where everything—from the cotton and tobacco fields dotting country roads to the regionally attributed hospitality that feels like nothing but cover for long-held resentments—is reminiscent of bondage; or perhaps from escaping it all at age fourteen on the Silver Meteor, headed north, with a cash-filled cloth pouch dangling from a strong cotton string tied tightly round his neck. Whatever its origin, I watch this liberty manifest through my grandfather’s simple practice of unfurling himself for a much-deserved respite and retreat into midday dreams from the most wide-open, unconfined, and welcoming space he can call his own: the center of his living room floor. And for that, I admire him.
While I dread meeting new people and, even worse, having to talk to them, Poppi seems always at ease. So much so that when the moment strikes, no matter whose home he’s in, he just finds a clean square of carpet, drops down to the floor, closes his eyes, and stretches out for a snooze. Sometimes, my little brother and I curl up beside him, hoping to experience at least a little of the carefree pleasure of Poppi’s naps. We fold our bony arms beneath our faces and, even while giggles slip from our grimacing mouths, we squeeze our eyes—otherwise wide with adoration—shut. But we find the floor uncomfortable. It offers no cushion for a protruding hip or arched back, no embrace of soaring spirit or listless limbs, at least not for those of us uneasy with rest and relaxation. We, tightly wound balls of energy, use the floor as a springboard, a play mat, a wrestling ring, stage, dance floor, desk, closet, drawing table, but never a place to bask in the glory of feeling free. Although Poppi may be able to spend hours there, six- or seven-year-old me can’t make it more than five minutes on the floor.
My son’s favorite part of making salat is sajdah. He often tries to start the prayer this way: at the end. I unfold the prayer mat—some multicolored polyester blend with bright green cottony fringes on both ends—and he crawls on, bends the upper half of his body down and presses his forehead into its artificial softness. It is a position of surrender. It resembles the posture that peasants in the movies are forced to take when royalty suddenly arrives and the peasants, dirty, unkempt, must hide their lack of worth. Quite humbling. When my now eight-year-old son does it tonight, his butt pokes the air, his back slopes down like a sled on a snowy hill, his hands are flattened as if making imprints for the Chinese Theatre, and his face—usually expressive with a mouth that can’t seem to stop moving—is completely hidden. He is calm. He’s comfortable. He is still. I treasure the moment but can’t keep it. I know that if I don’t get him up in a hurry, my son will find every reason not to budge from this pose.
“Not yet,” I say. “We have to do the other parts first.” Salat starts with the worshipper in a standing position; the body is erect with even arms and hands raised in the air, victorious, exultant. Gradually, the worshipper works herself down, bowing, bending, curling, until, finally—total breakdown—she is at rest, on the ground, in complete submission to and communion with God. This is what it means to be Muslim: to submit to the will of Allah. The positioning demonstrates it, but that acceptance only comes through work. So that rest, I remind my son, only comes at the end.
I adjust my feet on the rug and raise my hands to my ears to begin the first takbir. Too late. I look down and he is still folded in sajdah, the blood completely rushed to his head by now.
I understand the comfort he feels in being low. When I touch my forehead to the floor, I forget that there’s a grocery list I’ve started but haven’t finished for yet another loathsome trip to the store. I close my eyes and I’m in the realm of the spirit, where earthly worries seem at least a couple planets and several star clusters away. I raise my head and the distance I must bridge to worry, responsibility, doubt, and stress comes into view. It’s not far off. Maybe that’s why there’s another prostration so soon after the first in salat, anything to prolong the fleeting feeling of freedom that comes with surrender. This is what my grandfather must have felt all those hours on the floor. This must be why he lay there so often.
“Come on, get up,” I’m forced to tell my son. “We’ll get to that part soon.”
He stands and we begin.
There is a golden glow around my grandfather. Like hazy sunshine. Everyone must see it because they look at him, look away, then back again. They smile. The glow, rising like heat waves off a fireplace or sunbeams through a winter windshield, warms as well as comforts. Or it must, because today—four or five years into Poppi’s retirement—upon seeing it, a young lady transforms before my eyes.
Poppi is driving his old, roomy Chrysler New Yorker and, most likely, it’s just my younger brother and me strewn across the back and passenger seats as we make the trip from Poppi’s place in the Bronx to ours in Long Island. We’ve spent the weekend with him to give my mother—his daughter—a break, I’m sure. My older brother and sister can find their own things to do, but Poppi would’ve gladly taken them, too, even though now he’s alone, since Mama died, after forty-five years of marriage. We approach the Throgs Neck Bridge. Poppi stops at the toll booth.
From my vantage point in the passenger’s seat, I can see the attendant’s expression: stony, cold, and somewhat blank from the repetitive motion of taking cash and giving change to destination-focused drivers who slow down long enough for the transaction but nothing more. Poppi rolls down his window.
“How are ya today?” he says through a smile and extends a straightened bill to the young lady standing in the outhouse-like box. That’s when I see it, the change. Her mouth spreads into a grin, her eyes brighten, her hands draw up to her chest, and she takes a slight step back as she focuses on my grandfather’s face. She’s startled, amazed by what greets her. She does not take the money.
“You look like Nelson Mandela,” she says with some parts trepidation, some parts giddiness in her voice.
Poppi chuckles. It’s not the first time he’s heard it. In fact, since the anti-apartheid leader was freed some weeks or months ago, twenty-seven years after being locked in a South African prison, he’s heard it quite a few times. Mandela’s famous inch-high salt-and-pepper hair with a pronounced shock of white in the coils above one eyebrow, his ample cheeks that so readily rise into a grin, the grin itself that testifies to an inner joy despite his circumstances, my grandfather shares them all. Yes, there is a resemblance.
“Our march to freedom is irreversible,” Mandela said during a speech given the day of his release. “We must not allow fear to stand in our way.”
Every time I saw him on the news or a TV special afterwards, Mandela’s entire demeanor showed me—and the world—that his freedom could not be diminished by a racist system of apartheid and would not disappear with a lengthy prison sentence. As it was for my grandfather—who often told amusing stories (like the one about a boy trying and failing to outrun his shadow) that revealed his discomfort growing up on a farm in Jim Crow Georgia or, less often, ones that reflected his segregated service in the Navy during World War II—Mandela’s was a core-emanating freedom. It could never truly be taken away. For my grandfather, Wade Hampton Taylor Sr., whose name can be traced to a Confederate general—one of the country’s largest slave owners and a Reconstruction opponent—freedom was something he was to be denied. What an honor, then, for strangers to find a likeness between Nelson Mandela and a man whose own “march to freedom” included escaping a repressive South through the Great Migration.
Poppi, one hand gripping the steering wheel, comes up with a joke, a pun, his signature means of disarming anyone from a tired waitress to a grumpy grandchild. With a smirk, he says something like, “Well, I’m from the South, but not that south.”
The attendant, surprisingly, doesn’t completely believe him. “You look just like him,” she says and takes a slight step forward, shock and wonder lingering in her eyes. “You sure you’re not him?” she asks, clearly indifferent to the amount of time this particular transaction is taking and the cars stalled in queue outside her booth. Poppi’s hand holding the bill still hangs out the window.
“Last time I checked,” he says, as though exposing a secret yet concealing one at the same time. He hands her the money.
She puts it in her register and gives Poppi back some coins and bills.
“Thank ya kindly.” He extends his arm once more for a handshake and the tollbooth attendant—just like my little brother and me when Poppi sat up after of one of his naps and stretched out an arm for help off the floor—grasps it with both hands. That warmed and comforted smile again overtakes her face, like someone who’s just met royalty.
As we drive off, I turn around in my seat and see the golden glow of a setting sun hovering beyond the toll plaza.
My son and I have completed all the salat postures and now kneel on the prayer mat. It’s time for silent prayers. But, since he was too small to talk but big enough to listen, I’ve said them aloud when I’m with him, to model. This is what I do now.
Then, I lift my bowed head. “It’s your turn,” I say. “If there’s anything you want to say to God about Poppi, or anything else on your mind, you can.”
He opens his arms and cups his hands in front of his chest. “Ya, Allah,” he begins.
Ever since my boy was four or five months old, I’ve taken him with me on my trips from Maryland back home to New York, where everyone in my family still lives—save me. This began a few years after Poppi beat prostate cancer, when I realized he had more time but would not live forever; it was when I committed to spending as much time with him as possible. And because the days of us taking road trips together with him behind the wheel—down to Georgia for family reunions or to Washington, D.C. where he, my uncles, mother, and siblings dropped me off for college—had long passed, this for me meant making quarterly visits. So every winter, spring, summer, fall, my little boy and I would board a bus or a train for a sojourn to New York and to Poppi. But no more.
“I know that Poppi is there with you now and that’s OK,” my son says in his eight-year-old voice, light, lispy, and disarmingly cute. He begins to bounce in his crouch and lean to one side as he launches into a reverie about what his great-grandfather might say if in heaven he saw Stan Lee. The Marvel Comics legend my son wrote fan letters to died nine days before Poppi, also at ninety-five. (Mandela, too, was ninety-five when he died five years earlier). The loose connections didn’t escape my son. “They’ll be talking and Stan Lee will say, ‘Hey, do you know a kid named S_____ S______?’ ‘Yeah, I call him My Man Godfrey.’ And they’ll be up there telling stories about me.”
I smile. Poppi would break into one of his belly laughs that made him grin like he was twenty years old again if he heard this story. But I stay silent on the floor behind my son. It is his prayer and he is free to say whatever he wants. I took to the floor alone already. Worked myself from a most upright stance, elevated, how I felt at six whenever Poppi greeted me asking, “How’s grandpa’s girl?” all the way down to a begrudging, foundational peace, what I felt at age thirty-nine when I went to tell Poppi “bye” at the end of last month’s visit and he grabbed my hand and gazed into my eyes with a knowing glint that it would be the last time. And it was.
Down on my prayer mat, with the clang of life several feet above me, and the loom of death suspended somewhere more distant, tranquility descends and surrounds me. There is a stillness unlike any other. I can’t achieve it reclined on a couch or lying in bed. It is only down here, on the ground, that I feel it.
For my son, I wish the same. Not disappointment, nor despair, only peace. He soon finishes his prayer:
“Anyway, he was a kind man and I’m going to miss him.”
My husband, our eight-year-old son, his eleven-month-old brother, and I, in our car, follow Poppi, in his, past all his old haunts. From Queens, we pass the turnoff to the block he lived on with my step-grandmother; we merge onto the Grand Central and for several moments flank Shea Stadium, home to his beloved Mets; we exit to the Major Deegan and drive by Yankee Stadium, near the home where he raised my mother and uncles; overhead, we catch the rumbling silver flash of a train, an elevated IRT 4 from one of the lines Poppi conducted; we cross a bridge and enter New Jersey, where almost everyone in my family who’s died—my grandmother, Poppi’s brother, his mother—is buried.
The journey, unnecessarily long but appropriately commemorative, is Poppi’s own stations of the cross, a fitting last ride. And like the conductor he was, my grandfather greets us as we reach his final destination—our car pulls into the cemetery several minutes after his hearse.
Poppi’s casket is already in place beside a mound of dirt, a smattering of flowers, and a tiny row of folding chairs. It’s raised, as if on a pedestal, for those who need to see it, and what it represents, one last time. My eyes drift below and around it, at the bronze rectangles pressed into the ground, embossed with names, dates, nouns of identity. Many, in preparation for Christmas just a few weeks away, are decorated with wreaths. The grass surrounding them is very green, neatly trimmed, and surprisingly lush, like a cottony mat or soft carpet.
Everything has been arranged to make clear that here is where my grandfather’s body, prone and straight within its casket, will lie. For eternity.
Clutching the clump of tissues I placed in my coat pocket before leaving the funeral home, I tell myself, This is where I’ll have to say goodbye.
Once the other mourners have dutifully filed past the casket and paid their final respects, and some begin to pull hats lower, stuff hands in pockets, then head back to their cars, I approach the box holding my grandfather’s body. Reaching down to the ravaged spray beside it, I pluck a long-stemmed ivory-petaled lily and place it among the rest forming a neat row across the casket’s top.
“So, Pop,” I begin, trying to be casual, “this is it.” I imagine my grandfather inside aware that I’ve come for a visit with him, like I did so many times before: sitting next to him on my step-grandmother’s vinyl-covered sofa as we answered Jeopardy! clues, or across from his hospital bed in the tiny room’s singular chair—plastic, stiff—allowing nurses to enter and interrupt us every chance they got, or, finally, greeting him while standing over the metal rail that held him in the bed my mother had installed in the smallest bedroom of her apartment. He couldn’t walk, was confined to that room, in that bed, in that body that no longer functioned. By the end, he hadn’t felt the comfort of a welcoming floor in years.
It’s a bright day and although beneath a canopy, the position of my grandfather’s casket allows sunrays to reflect from the lacquered copper-colored surface. His golden glow shines once more.
I extend my hand to touch it, to return to the warmth of my grandfather’s presence, but only the casket’s top—smooth and slick but also hard and cold—grazes my fingertips. I’m ready to say goodbye.
“You’ve been with us for a long time, Poppi,” I say, my throat suddenly stuffed with a prominent knot. “But now it’s time for you to rest. Rest now, Pop.”
It had become clear to me that after ninety-five years, my grandfather had finished all the necessary movements and mastered all the obligatory positions of life: bowing, stretching, standing, bending, curling, and, finally, unfolding, until—total breakdown—his body was in full repose and his spirit in complete communion with God. It is this freedom, hard fought, harder won, that the rest of us aspire to. This that we steal snatches of when we fall out or break down, unable or unwilling to get up. While my son knew Poppi, he was too young to have ever witnessed him demonstrate what it means to be free by lying prone on the ground. Though he could not understand, I needed him to. Out of respect for Poppi, our patriarch, and for where our family came from, my son had to know that his great-grandfather had earned his place on the floor. In life and in death, his lying down was his rising above. In everything he did—from greeting the tollbooth attendant to napping on the living room carpet—I’d felt his transcendence.
Perhaps it was all in preparation for this moment, with the gravediggers preparing to lower his body into ground, down to the lowest horizontal level it could reach, where it would stretch out for eternal sleep and none of us in his family would worry the least bit about it reaching such depths. The ground was always where my grandfather felt most comfortable, most free.
One afternoon, some eight months after Poppi’s body was laid in its final resting place, I come home with a rolled-up area rug. The main level of the house my family moved to the year before has bare hardwood floors. My boys crash and stomp about the living room, their dropped hard plastic toys and heavy footfalls reverberating between my ears. I can hardly stand the noise. I bought the rug as decoration, sure, but also to dull the racket and protect the kids, especially the little one, from falls.
The following morning, I unfurl the rectangular swath of gray, white, and blue shag I thought looked a little dated in the store, and immediately all the reasons and doubt I had before making the purchase dissipate. All I can think of is how Poppi would have loved it. It turns the floor from a thing to be walked on, hardly given any thought, to a place of focus and welcome, one that, given the proper respect, can keep us grounded in who we truly are, whether steeped in freedom, faith, or the love of family. I stand back mulling the rug’s placement and envision my grandfather getting down on hands and knees with a grumble and groan before settling into repose, freely and contentedly, in the middle of my living room floor. With this simple act, I feel I’ve welcomed him into my home, a home he’d never see. The rug, I realize, is perfect. And my eight-year-old is going to love it.
He soon awakes and begins plodding down the stairs. When he notices the floor, what I’ve spread onto it, he runs the rest of the way down and nosedives into its fresh softness. He rolls himself from side-to-side. He lifts his arms and spreads his legs, making carpet angels. His movements are more dance than dirge, his expression transformed from tragedy to comedy. He lies there, face down, stretched out, legs crossed at the ankles, finally on the floor comfortably—and this time, I let him be.
Sufiya Abdur-Rahman teaches nonfiction at Washington College. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Human Parts, Gay Mag, and elsewhere. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Twitter @MrsAbolitionist.