Once my mother and I were watching an episode of 20/20 together. I don’t remember the all of the specifics, but there was a woman with an adult son who required 24-hour care. She was providing that care in home, and the episode chronicled her decision to put her son in an assisted living facility.
I must’ve been about 16, and my mind could not process why this woman would place her own child in a nursing home. All I could think of was how her son must have felt being resigned to total care by strangers while his mother went on with her life. “She is so selfish,” I remember blurting out.”
My mother, a nurse who also spent years working as a job coach for people with mental and physical disabilities in addition to a weekend job working in a group home for disabled adults, muted the TV, turned to me and said, “Let me explain something to you. I spend 60 hours a work working with people who need constant care. I have a client who wakes up every hour during he night screaming. I have another client who bites and scratches without being provoked. I have another client who cannot feed, dress or wipe himself who needs someone with him at all times.” I listened though I’d heard stories of some of her more challenging clients before.
“I’m only with them between 8 and 12 hours a day. I get paid to care for them. And I have a whole team of coworkers who can help me when things get difficult. Do you understand that?” I nodded. “Now imagine if you had to care for somebody every minute of every day. You can’t even sleep well because you know they may need you at anytime. You can’t go see a movie or go out to dinner because you have to care for them, and even if you do have some help that would allow you to go out and to a movie, you can’t enjoy yourself because that person you’re always responsible for is always on your mind, and you’re worried they may need you at any time.”
“Yeah, that would be hard,” I said, “but you make sacrifices for your children.” My mother gave me a look that was half disgust and half pity. “You got a lot to learn about life, lil’ girl,” she advised. “I love y’all more than anything on this earth. I’ll kill a motherfucker with a popsicle stick ’bout my kids, and I can still understand how it would be too much to constantly take care of y’all for the rest of my life. Now I don’t know if I would put y’all in a home, but I damned sure can understand trying to make the best decision for yourself and your child, because if she is stressed out, tired and overworked from trying to take care of that boy, never having a break, she is not the best for him or herself. And she ain’t abandoning him. She’s making sure he receives the best care she can find and keeping herself from withering away.”
Well, stubborn as I was then, I still believed the mother was being selfish, but I was smart enough not to argue with my mother. It turns out she was right: I had a whole lot to learn about life. Twenty years later, I empathize with and understand that woman’s decision.
When my daughter was born last year, for as obsessed and in love with her as I was (and remain), many days all that kept me pushing through when I was surviving off three or four hours sleep a night was the knowledge that soon enough, my baby would begin sleeping through the night. Even taking care of my own child, whom I’d lay down my life and take on an army for, whom I shared my body, mind and spirit with for 9 months, who emerged from my womb and filled my heart with love and my eyes with tears, was overwhelming and exhausting at times. I now know that if even the intoxicating love of motherhood is not enough to prevent feeling overwhelmed with care taking, taking care of anyone full-time, loved one or not, takes a toll on the body, mind and spirit.
So I do not blame B. Smith’s husband, Dan Gasby, for wanting to still feel romantic love from a present, mentally healthy partner. I can believe that one can love and care for a partner who has been assaulted and victimized by dementia and still desire the the affection and companionship they’ve lost in their partner due to the misfortune of disease. The mind slipping away is much more difficult than the body, because losing memories and lucidity make any kind of intimacy nearly impossible. I will not past judgment on those desires because I have never watched powerlessly as the love of my life deteriorates.
But for all my empathy and understanding why a man may want to date while the wife he’s known for decades slips away, none of it explains why he would callously flaunt his mistress around the woman he vowed to love and honor. There is no explanation for why his mistress would affectionately embrace the woman she’s charged with caring for during the day and fuck her husband at night. What justification could there be for introducing your wife to your new girlfriend and giving her a room in your wife’s house? How can he so arrogantly defend his immoral affair, in an elitist, anti-Black rant insulting the very Black people whose support helped build the fortune he has lived off for nearly 30 years?
And speaking of racist, it matters that Gasby’s mistress is a white woman. No, a Black mistress would not make this repugnant affair sanctionable. But to watch a Black woman who is nearly 70 year old, who lived through the unrelenting Jim Crow era racism, have a white woman living in her home, smiling in her face and pretending to care for her deeply, all the while knowing that she stands to benefit from that woman’s ultimate demise adds another layer to this already outrageous situation.
Yes, it matters that a Black man, while married to a Black woman with waning health, has the absolute gall to not only cheat on his wife, but do it in her home with a white woman who pretends she loves and respects his wife. The optics of watching a white woman smile all the while taking advantage of a Black woman are too familiar. Seeing a white woman, assisted and enabled by a Black man, fuck over a Black woman is a song too many of us have heard before.
This white woman professing how she never wanted to deal with a married man, as if there’s some accident in screwing a woman’s husband a few rooms away from her, comes straight from the Hannah Handbook. Pretending that she was some innocent, kindhearted person who unwillingly fell in love with this woman’s husband has “white feminism” written all over it. Being wined and dined on B. Smith’s dime while portraying herself as a part of the family has the familiar stench of white womanhood.
Gasby propping up and protecting this white woman from the criticism her complicity in disrespecting his wife has earned her, insinuating that his actions are only reprehensible to the Black public endeared to his wife because she is white, indicates that the general public assessment of his moral compass is at least somewhat valid. Gasby knows that the world is not about to sit back and watch a white woman be vilified, and he used that fact to elicit sympathy for their relationship and paint his critics as merely miserable, racists, rather than compassionate onlookers repulsed by the emotional abuse and disregard for a Black icon. An icon whose life’s work and fortune are most likely going to be left to a man who doesn’t respect her enough not to have his side piece in her home and a white woman poised to get her hands on that inherited fortune as the woman in Gasby’s life.
And in all of this, as Gasby demands the public consider how lonely he felt having his wife gripped by Alzheimer’s, losing the person he says was perfect for him, not once have we heard him bemoan how Smith has lost so much of her life. Nowhere in his sanctimonious rants or his mistress’ soft-voiced soundbites do we hear them expressing pain or sorrow over this woman, whom they both claim to love and care for, living outside herself, having so many moments stolen from her. Where is the true concern and compassion for the only indisputable victim in this entire story?
I hope to never have to watch a loved one suffer with Alzheimer’s. I do not want to try to even imagine my spouse or parent or sibling being robbed of their memories and agency. I will be eternally grateful if I never have to remind someone I’ve spent most of my life with of who they are or who I am.
But even more than that, I pray that if such a loved one meets such an abysmal fate, I keep their well-being at the forefront of my mind. I hope that I do not become absorbed in my own burden of caring for my loved one that my happiness trumps their dignity. And I hope that if Alzheimer’s takes hold of my mind, that those around me, especially the man who has sworn his love for me, takes that declaration seriously and doesn’t value his carnal needs over me.