If you’ve been influenced by lifestyle gurus at any point in the last few decades, you surely know the name B. Smith. She constructed a small empire out of being a successful fashion model and lover of food, decor, and style
At the height of her career, she had a regular show on the Food Network B. Smith with Style, a recurring stint on the Today show, books on food and its presentation, and she owned three restaurants in New York City and Washington D.C. Even now, she still has home goods for sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
In 1992, she met and married her second husband, Dan Gasby. Dan willingly worked alongside her in building their kingdom of chic goods and a classy but down-home aura. By all accounts, he’s been a great business partner. By his own account, he’s been a faithful husband since the start of their marriage.
But in 2014, B. Smith revealed that she has Alzheimer’s. For the last five years, they’ve been trying to fashion a new life together under considerably less glamorous circumstances.
The glossy ads and constant interviews are now replaced with trying to make it through each day unharmed. They live burdened by the weight that accompanies the debilitating descent into a mental vacuum.
The perfect time for a live-in girlfriend?
Recently, they returned to headlines with the news that Gasby’s new girlfriend, Alex Lerner, moved in with them. Gasby talks about the arrangement in the most matter-of-fact terms. “Hate it or love it, you can debate” he says, “but as for me, I’m feelin’ great!” B. hardly seems to recognize who the woman is or that she actually lives in her house.
At first listening to the three of them, Gasby almost normalized the arrangement. Like, what’s so bad about this? B. doesn’t know what’s happening. Gasby needs help and companionship. He has been faithful all these years. And the girlfriend really is helping both of them. Gasby’s adult daughter feels relieved for him. So do his friends.
It actually crossed my mind that maybe they’re not even sleeping together. What a huge help. That’s certainly one narrative making the rounds that I felt hopeful to buy into.
But then I asked my wife what she thought about this arrangement. She looked at me like I was an idiot. “It’s ’till death do us part.’ Not ‘till I get messed up in my brain and can’t remember you anymore’ do us part.”
Two kinds of love
In the wake of receiving much backlash—including death threats—Gasby posted on Facebook. “I love my wife but I can’t let her take away my life! 5-10 years from now when many of you who will have an almost predestined meeting with Alzheimer’s because of genetics, obesity, and a myriad of inflammatory diseases, you’ll be wishing for someone to share moments with and ease the pain of loneliness and despair.”
Absolutely. When faced with the suffering of caring for a chronically-ill spouse, who doesn’t long for anything that will “ease the pain of loneliness and despair”? Who doesn’t long for a reprieve? For a connection with anyone who makes us feel better? Seeking relief in the midst of suffering is a response the average person understands intuitively.
But let’s run a little deeper with, “I love my wife but I can’t let her take away my life!” Such a loaded sentence. Its relation to truth totally depends on whether we’re talking “Hollywood love” or “godly love.”
“Hollywood love” means I stick around until I don’t feel like it anymore. Until the cost/benefit graph starts to tilt against your value in my personal life goal of happiness. Until I find someone else who makes me feel better than you do—for whatever reason.
Godly love means I stick around until one or both of us dies. Until we can no longer faithfully serve each other. Until I’ve ushered you to the edge of earthly life. Even if it costs me my own life.
That’s a love that mirrors the love God has for us (see: Jesus). It’s a love that reflects the mystery of Christ and His church. It’s a supernatural love that transcends Hollywood love the way the Grand Canyon transcends a street curb.
This is God-empowered love played out in the context of fidelity. It implies: I won’t turn to anyone else for marital companionship, for sexual love, for partnership—even if you can no longer provide it—as long as we both shall live. Period.
But who really does this?
I just watched my best friend care for his wife with late-stage ovarian cancer. It was brutal. She had a colostomy bag that leaked and needed to be changed in the middle of the night, often multiple times. She needed a wheelchair to get around. In her worst moments, she was short with him and irritably miserable with no one else to take it out on.
This went on for months.
During that time, there’s no question he would have enjoyed the company of a healthy, fresh female in his house. Someone to put the focus back on making him feel good. A woman who could have sex with him and provide secure companionship through the night. Someone to help with their three kids during the day.
And there were plenty of female friends offering help, right up to the end. He had multiple opportunities to cross all kinds of lines to get personal needs met in a myriad of ways. He could have easily chosen to serve himself and his needs while still carrying the burden of hers.
But he never turned to anyone for things reserved for his relationship to Elizabeth. Even though Elizabeth could no longer provide in sickness what she could provide in health.
When she finally died, there was an outpouring of grief from every direction. My friend also received an inestimable amount of power and respect—almost a reverence— directed toward him for how he loved his wife to the end. His commitment was a testament that something obviously spiritual had happened between them. That something spiritual also sustained them to play their roles with each other to the end. People honored my friend and praised God.
We don’t know what we don’t know
In an article titled, “B. Smith’s husband shouldn’t have to apologize for his girlfriend,” author Rose Moten laments her mother’s choice to care for her stroke-impaired husband for the last 19 years of her life. Rose identifies with Gasby, suggesting that “in our tendency to romanticize the vows ‘for better, for worse, in sickness and in health,’ we may not know what we don’t know.”
Then let’s not romanticize our vows. Of course we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what’s coming in the next five seconds, let alone the next 50 years.
Before saying our vows to each other in wedding day bliss, let’s be clear about what they mean. “No matter what happens, no matter how awful it gets—beyond my ability to imagine awful—I’m committing to stay with you and remain faithful to you until we die. Whether you continue to bring me happiness or not.”
Those words are full of blood and guts. Full of disappointment and ache. They might include colostomy bags and memory loss.
They are sexless words, lonely words, and potentially full-of-despair words. But they are God-serving and God-glorifying, lose-your-life-so-you-can-find-it words. They should be handled with care.
Leave the mistress out
In a popular movie scene, an elderly man sits in a nursing home with his equally aged wife. He reads a romantic story to her—their own, it turns out—from a notebook. He reads in an effort to trigger her memories as dementia takes its toll. Now, though, she doesn’t even recognize him.
Somehow the movie, The Notebook, just doesn’t seem as endearing if Noah brings his girlfriend to readings at Allie’s bedside in the waning days of her Alzheimer’s. Or worse, if his mistress snuggles up with them in bed as they die together in the final scene.
Of course we can all understand the self-preserving vibe behind such a decision. It just isn’t the kind of love worth talking about or remembering or passing on to kids—or even re-watching in a movie over and over again.
Selfish Hollywood love is never worth preserving. But selfless, godly love creates a legacy that transcends and lives beyond even our own temporary pain.
We could say that B. Smith’s husband is just doing for himself what any of us want to do when faced with the dire circumstances that he faces. But we just can’t make peace with his choice of bringing a girlfriend to live in the home of his dying wife. This is a choice that redefines love as a feeling dependent on his own best interests instead of his wife’s.
Sure, we can hate those choices when we see them in others. It’s even more important to call them out when we see them in ourselves. The better way always involves losing your life to find it, especially—in the context of Christian marriage—when we lose it on behalf of our spouse.
We can find power to live with faithfulness “till death do us part”—and choose to leave the girlfriend out.
Copyright © 2019 Ed Uszynski. All rights reserved.
Ed Uszynski has a PhD in American Culture Studies. He and his wife Amy speak at the Weekend to Remember Getaway. You can find him on twitter @Uszynski32.