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When a Mentally Absent Spouse Is Apportioned a Third of a Marriage

February 14, 2019


Fans of “reality TV,” willing to be entertained by stories of exhibitionists behaving badly (and willingly) for a camera, some cash, and the most vulgar sort of celebrity notice, are being promised a new diversion, this time in the form of one husband’s decision to openly bring his mistress into his marriage because his wife suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease:

B. Smith, 69, was a millionaire, a top model, a restaurateur, and a TV personality—many referred to her as the Black Martha Stewart. But her life took a turn for the worse 10 years ago, when she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Since then, her husband of 27 years, Dan Gasby, a former TV executive, has been caring for her. Last year, [Gasby, age 64] started openly carrying on a relationship with a white woman, 53-year-old Alex Lerner.

Lerner has moved into the home shared by Gasby and his wife, as B. Smith continues to be wracked by the disease.

This “reality” circumstance shouldn’t surprise us; the husband’s attitude seems to be the next logical point of devolution in our cultural understanding about the self-sacrificial nature of love and marriage.

This husband’s decision to bring his mistress into his marriage is not unprecedented. After journalist Jan Chorlton developed the same disease, her husband, CBS reporter Barry Petersen, revealed that he had taken a mistress while providing for his mentally-absent wife.

It was an undeniably moving report; after introducing the viewer to images of the stunning and lively Chorlton (who died in 2013), we see Petersen’s still beautiful, quite lovable wife living in what appears to be a top-notch facility. Unable to sustain simple conversation or to recognize her husband, Chorlton nevertheless speaks of a man she will always love. When Petersen asks his wife if she can name that man, she giggles and shrugs, but can only manage, “Mr. Happy!”

Petersen openly weeps. For the viewer, it is difficult to remain unaffected by his sense of loss, or his naked pain.

Later in the segment, Petersen reveals that he has entered into a relationship with a widow, a new companion who lives with him and who also loves Jan as one part of “this very peculiar new American family.” The piece closes by challenging anyone to gainsay them who has not walked in their shoes.

It is a heart-tugger, for sure, and in a “Who am I to judge?” culture, we are tempted to say, “C’est la vie. As long as they’re happy and not hurting anyone else…”

But that sentiment seems insufficient. It leaves me wondering if these people, all unintentionally, actually are hurting all of us—the whole society—by further breaking down our understanding of what life asks of us and what we are meant to be to each other. Was it not precisely for such situations that marriage vows were designed? “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, together or apart.” Love, which is limitless, is supposed to be strong enough—even if we do not think we are—to survive these challenges and even grow through them.

A neighbor of mine used to work as a therapist for Alzheimer’s patients, both high-functioning and low, and I would occasionally volunteer to help. One day she pointed out a man in his mid-sixties who was a daily visitor to his wife. “He is a saint. Every day he brings his lunch and eats with her. She doesn’t recognize him, so every day she is meeting a new friend. When we told him he needn’t come so often he said, ‘But she is my bride; if I did not see her, I would miss her.’”

The man’s wife had changed, but if she was no longer capable of seeing her groom, he still beheld and adored his bride.

Their marriage was a microcosmic reflection of the macro-love of God for his people and the love of Christ for his Church. Love without limit, love without fear, love without desertion; love in joy and in pain, love in the shallows and the depths, love without end.

We cannot see God except as he is made manifest through each of us, and in the covenant of marriage his faithfulness is beautifully reflected. We look to this manifestation, in all its turbulent courses, to get an inkling of him. When we cannot see the great love of God reflected so near to us, we are diminished.

When love is rationalized into limits, we have sold love, and ourselves, short. If God is love, we have sold God short too. We have chosen to walk around a fire, rather than through it, chosen not to trust that our sufferings have meaning and that they are, on balance, the crucibles of our commonalities, which mold and strengthen our societies.

Petersen says at one point that his wife Jan’s love has been “lost to the long goodbye of Alzheimer’s.” That suggested a perspective that sees love as fragmentable and life as finite—a measure brought to close—and the rest is silence.

To the nameless, lunch-bearing husband of my neighbor’s acquaintance, love was not lost or fragmented; it was wholly intact and alive. Petersen’s love was not “lost” either, but perhaps he could not quite perceive its nearness because he had dropped the lens of eternity.

Hard times are endurable, and suffering can be borne; if humanity no longer believes that, it will quickly extinguish itself in an effort to go through life anesthetized and feeling nothing but “fine” as we are further be-numbed.

If mentally absent spouses can credibly be warehoused and (without their reasoned consent) apportioned a third of a marriage, things will quickly devolve into something more banal and expedient, particularly for those lacking financial means. The lives of “gone” spouses will eventually be deemed too expensive to sustain, and another thread in the seamless garment of life-and-death issues will have frayed and snapped.

My inclination is not to judge these men, Peterson and Gasby; that is God’s job. I have no idea what torments they have endured, or how they came to their decisions. All I can do is bring them before Christ in prayer.

As badly as I might feel for them, though, I will not ride along on an approving and sentimental wave of emotionalism, which is a very cheap and inefficient fuel for life.

These decisions that put limits on life and love must resonate within our consciences because they will eventually affect medical and legislative actions and further challenge our understanding of what it means to be alive—to possess an innate human dignity that surpasses private considerations—and about who among the weak and helpless will pay the prices for the choices made by the strong.