The photograph above was taken at the Hamburger Museum for Contemporary Art the other day, and I first published it on Instagram before deciding to write a few lines. I crossed paths with this senior couple (I guesstimate late 70s if not early 80s) several times throughout the museum, as we all followed a similar path of exploration. At first, I just assumed he was telling her an endless story, and my glance was more peripheral than acknowledging. It was only when I passed them a third time that I noticed that it was only him who was speaking, and she sat in her wheelchair quietly, very still and well bundled up in spite of the heating in the building.
An hour later, I heard a commotion among the museum guards because there was some trouble at the stair lift, with someone’s wheelchair that had gotten stuck. It was the elderly couple again and he could not figure out how to release the safety bar of the lift to roll her out. It took four people to figure out the contraption, and still she said nothing. Later on, while lost in contemplation at a particularly grotesque painting, I backed into something and was grunted at, so I turned to apologise at whoever I had bumped. It was her. It was only then did I notice her advanced state of Parkinson’s, and realised why she was the silent one. Her muscles had atrophied so much that her speech was impeded and a series of moans and grunts were her only form of communication. The next thing I discovered was that they were a Latin American couple, and that he had been not only reading all the captions of the installations to her, but also translating some of them to Spanish, adding his running commentary while he was at it. I kept my eye on them from a distance, fascinated at their unconditional devotion to each other in spite of the physical inability of one to reciprocate verbally. Her twisted hands still pointed out the direction they were to take, and he wheeled her along accordingly, lovingly.
Unconditionality is not something we give out or receive often, because the concept demands such a high level of trust, that not everyone can fathom it, let alone be willing to bestow it. The lack of or absence thereof of conditions that ordinarily define or limit a relationship is unthinkable in the legal, business or political sense. Society cannot function or be governed without rules and conditions, and intricate systems of checks and balances are in place to ensure that order reigns supreme. Most relationships or interactions we have in our professional and social circles are all conditional, bound by terms and conditions, agreements, and quid pro quo.
So when does unconditionality enter the equation? It rarely does, simply because many do not distinguish between conditions and boundaries, nor understand the difference. In an unconditional friendship, for example, the trust and respect for one another is unusual as it is strong, and is the foundation on which everything the relationship is built upon. There is no quid pro quo, it simply is. The unconditional friendship I share with my soul sisters allows us to embrace one another as we are, support each other through thick and thin, show our weakest and ugliest sides, and yet know that The Other loves us for who we are, and not for who can be or who they want us to become. But we have boundaries we respect, self imposed in the interest of privacy, knowing full well that when the other person is ready, she will open up about it.
Unconditionality in a relationship is gentle but strong;
tender and compassionate;
generous (of self) and risky;
understanding and accepting;
emotional and spiritual;
turbulent and healing;
you sign up for the storms and the sunshine alike, and everything else in-between.
All at the same time.
Unconditional friendship is something I believe, trust, and invest my heart and soul in because it is my safe place. I can run to this oasis when the my world is imploding, and even if I do end up bound to a wheelchair someday, someone will read out the captions at the museum for me.