No young bride or groom ever imagines that in twenty years one of them may be chronically ill, and the other partner may become a full-time caregiver. They may blithely repeat, “in sickness and in health.” But starry-eyed Youth cannot conceive of the crushing reality hidden within such a serious promise.

This morning my wife asked me for the fourth time, “What day is it?” A few years ago I would have said, “Oh for God's sake, I just told you three times!” But now I simply speak as clearly as I can (because of her hearing loss), pretending that I'm an actor on stage, and the director has asked me to repeat a line from the script. (There's nothing unreasonable about that! In fact, it's an expected part of my professional job.) “Thursday,” I say smilingly. If she thanks me, my next line is a cordial, “You're welcome.”

So, her illness is my path to Zen. My necessary discipline is that the sicker she becomes, the kinder and better a person I must try to be. Not in a false way, but in the deepest way possible – by letting go of my old expectations and memory habits, and learning to truly Be in the Moment. If I refuse to work on this, then her existence and mine will become nothing more than a downward spiral of two old people circling the drain into depression, futility and death. We might as well end it all now!

But to use these terrible circumstances as the fuel for transcendence – now that actually means something! Talk about knocking off those rough edges! All my life has been a process of slowly smoothing those edges down, as I learn humility and wisdom and patience when I'm tempted to rush to judgment. But even now in my 70's, there are still jagged bits sticking out of my personality. I need the smoothing action of one of life's belt sanders...of which Caregiving is one of the most powerful.

In the first years of my wife's memory loss, I could not believe that she really couldn't recall the simplest thing we did yesterday, or even something she just said to me five minutes ago! But thanks to a very important training session I received at Ability 360, our Home Health Care agency, it was finally explained to me that it's all too true; she really can't remember them. It made me think of this famous example from a movie:

In “2001, A Space Odyssey,” Hal the self-aware computer almost succeeds in taking over the mission and killing both human astronauts. When astronaut Dave finally gets back on board, he takes a deactivation key in hand and goes into the depths of the machine to manually regain control of the ship. He finds the main computer bank, and one-by-one he proceeds to unlock and remove Hal's memory cards. With each chunk of memory he removes, Hal becomes more simple and childlike - until it is once more just an electronic tool subject to the astronaut's commands.

Sadly, this Memory Deactivation process is analogous to a human brain that is slowly dying from dementia. As soon as the memory card is removed – if, say, the neurological connections are broken – it is rendered unavailable. The person absolutely cannot remember anything that was on that card. You can make her cry by yelling at her in frustration, explaining in detail what she is supposed to be remembering, and begging her to come back to you – but you cannot make her remember. You cannot make her come back.

So, Patience Practice also is part of my Zen. Holding onto my frustration only makes it worse, for me and for her. Instead of craving for things to be different from how they are, I learn to breathe-in a new attitude, to see with fresh eyes the wonder of a totally new reality – where everything changes from moment to moment. I rely on no past expectations, for they no longer exist. I get with the program! I listen to what she is asking, and answer as simply as possible. If I've misunderstood, I apologize cheerfully, with no judgmental comments; but I do my best to be In The Moment.

Then I wipe the slate clean, because a new question or statement is on its way, and I must be fresh and ready for it! I Do Not Expect It to Have Anything to Do With What Was Just Said – Because It Won't. That last moment doesn't exist anymore; I Must Be In This One!

If I can adapt to this new world of spontaneity, I may yet attain some level of peace. But if, instead, I expect her to remain in the old world of logic and linear thought progression, then her failure to do so will drive me crazy.

I must remember that it's too easy to bully her psychologically – and the ever-perfecting personality I am becoming will refuse to act that way. It's beneath me. So I don't ask her, “Is there anything you need right now?” and plop down in my chair when she doesn't answer right away. I tell her what the options are: “Can I get you a sandwich?” “Do you need to use the bathroom?” “Can I get you more tea?”

And I never ask her to put two things together to come to a conclusion, because she can't do math anymore. It no longer works to say, “Would you like to have dinner now, or would you rather see another TV show first?” Her brain will freeze. It may not even hear the second part of the question. I must ask each question separately, kindly and clearly. And WAIT for her to answer each one. This can be extremely taxing on my energy because she moves glacially, like a desert tortoise trying to cross a six-lane highway. But if I get mad at her or lose patience, she will not understand why. It will only make it worse. And, besides – Where was I in such a hurry to get to, anyway? This is my job. This is where I'm supposed to be. Whether I stand here for one minute or for seven, doesn't make any difference whatsoever. I just have to be strong enough to stand.

And that's why it is a true Zen discipline. There's nothing easy about it, and I frequently fail. But I regroup, I get myself back together again – apologizing if necessary – and I get back into the practice. At some unknown point in the future, someone else will be incredibly grateful that I mastered this most difficult of all disciplines. And so will I.