The poet Rainer Maria Rilke believed that a loving relationship is always an exercise in balancing the ultimate solitude in which we all do and must live, with the desire for a togetherness which is, in reality, impossible. In a relationship, he says, we must each stand guard over the other person's solitude, over their autonomy.
We must respect it; in failing to do so, we ultimately destroy the unique qualities which drew us to them (and vice versa) in the first place – “all companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighbouring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling . . .’
When I read this earlier this week, I thought it seemed clear that Rilke has probably never rubbed someone's back as they vomited into a Vileda mop bucket (sans mop). A little like the recent interview in which Russell Brand declared himself – and I am paraphrasing – really into parenthood without the bit where you take responsibility for the physical needs of your infant children, many poets, like philosophers, often spend a lot of their time in an immaterial up-yonder, in which finding a receptacle for someone you love to be sick into is very much a secondary concern.
This week, Jules got the flu, and badly. This was no doubt a consequence of commuting in cold weather via London’s underground, which is essentially a string of hot and humid sardine cans populated by antigens and people who never make eye contact with one another but will happily cough forcefully into the face of the person jammed in next to them.
However, it became clear that, while Rilke was right – we cannot fire ourselves at speed in the direction of the person we love, seek to be the answer to all of their questions and problems, and mould ourselves to fit into the space they create around themselves – autonomy sort of goes out the window when someone is ill.
There is no longer any ground beneath us; we fall, and we need the other person to catch us
The flu is of course, in a healthy person, not dangerous, but it certainly feels as though it might take you with it when it finally grants you your body back and fecks off. When we are ill, we are rendered vulnerable and needy. We might want to be left alone to sleep or wallow, and not be asked whether these socks are for the wash, or whether we have transferred our half of the rent, but we certainly don’t want independence.
What we want is someone who loves us to swoop in and pick us up – to take on the responsibility of checking our temperature and encouraging us to eat crackers and putting a damp washcloth onto our blazing foreheads. The balance shifts, the space around us narrows, and there is no longer any ground beneath us; we fall, and we need the other person to catch us.
Of course, in relationships where one party suffers with long-term illness and is in need of constant care, this will apply strains that will change the relationship in ways that would be difficult to understand for anyone who is not in that position.
In the short term, however, we can learn from the sudden vulnerability of a partner. When poor Jules was delirious with fever, confused and distressed, his tall body seemed smaller and more vulnerable than I had ever seen it before. Other than calling the doctor for advice and following that advice, I could do nothing but hold him and comfort him until his fever lifted and he could have his solitude again. I could only ignore how frightening it felt to see him so ill and think what I might best do to help him.
In relationships, there is much space between two people, but sometimes circumstances orient themselves so that the space shrinks and you become closer. You know one another in a new way.
There is always a price for this, though. I know that because now I have the flu.