Care and Feeding

My Dying Dad’s Final Request Is Just Too Much for Me

There’s no way I’m responsible for this, right?

A man in a tank top with his head resting in his hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by DragonImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was 13, my dad walked out on my mom, sister, and me for another woman. He married her, and after that it was basically like I had no father. He didn’t want any custody of me or my sister, and my mom had to take him to court multiple times to get him to pay child support. Once my father and his new wife had their first child, he was never present in my life again. At my high school graduation, he never showed—he claimed he had “forgotten” that he had a trip to New York planned with his family. Same thing when I got my college degree: He and his wife suddenly had to go on a 12-year anniversary cruise that week. When I sent him an invitation for my wedding, he told me he regretted how he had treated me and offered to walk me down the aisle as a peace offering. We got together a couple times and he met my fiancé, and it seemed like it was going well. On the day of my wedding, however, he called me an hour before and told me he couldn’t make it—no explanation, no apology, nothing.

When my kids were born, he didn’t come to the hospital to see them or come to any of their parties, and never sends them (or me) a card for birthdays or a Christmas gift, even though I always send something for them. Five years ago, my sister was diagnosed with cancer. She fought hard, but it eventually took her life. I adopted her son, who was 2 years old at the time. During this whole process, my father was absent. He didn’t respond to any emails she sent him asking to meet up before her death, and he didn’t even attend her funeral.

Now I’m 36, and my kids are 10, 7, and 3. I’d made peace with the fact that my father was always going to be absent—until a couple of days ago, when he called me out of the blue asking if I’d like to have lunch. I had this ridiculous hope that he’d want to apologize and build a relationship, but of course that’s not what he wanted. He revealed that he has the same cancer my sister had, and only has a couple months to live. He wants me to help take care of my stepsister after his death. My stepsister is 16 and on the autism spectrum—I barely know her; I’ve seen her about five times. My father and his wife don’t get her the specialized care she needs. The last time I saw my stepsister, I was pregnant with my youngest, and she looked me straight in the eye and told me she hoped my baby would die. I haven’t seen her since because my father said I upset her by crying. I completely understand that it’s not her fault and my father should’ve raised her and gotten her help and taught her the life skills she needs instead of using her autism as an excuse. But at the same time, I don’t want to raise a child I don’t know when I already have three kids. When I expressed this, my father said that since his wife hasn’t worked since they got married, she will not be able to work and take care of their daughter. He wants her to move in with me and for me to take care of their daughter while his wife lives her life. He said that it was no different from adopting my sister’s child when she died. He tried to guilt me into it by saying his other child, his son, “abandoned” his sister and family, and I’m better than that (in reality, his son moved across the country when my father and his wife disowned him for being gay).

I blew up and said that it was in no way the same—my sister was always there for me, her son was conceived via sperm donor so he would have been left orphaned, and my sister didn’t cancel on plans that would have let me get to know my nephew—and then left the restaurant. I’ve been thinking about it since, and I’m wondering if I did the wrong thing. Should I do what my father asks? I don’t want to raise a 16-year-old, but maybe I’m just being selfish?

— It’s Been 23 Years

Dear 23 Years,

Your father absolutely shouldn’t have put this on you, especially after everything he’s already done to hurt you and everyone else he’s related to. It will be hard for your stepsister to lose her father, a pain you yourself already know, and I truly hope she gets whatever help she needs going forward. But it’s not your responsibility to step in and parent her after your father’s death, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s something her mother would even want—to me, it sounds like something your father came up with mainly to assuage his own guilt. None of his many problems are yours to solve.

It’s unfortunate that he never allowed you to get to know your stepsister, who you haven’t seen for several years. It may be that some sort of relationship between the two of you is possible once you’re no longer kept apart. If that ever happens, and you can be part of each other’s lives in some way, that could be a positive and meaningful thing for both of you. But no one should expect you to invite your stepsister and her mother to live with you after your father dies, or be her primary caregiver when she’ll still have a living parent who is ultimately responsible for her, and I hope you can absolve yourself of any guilt you may feel over saying no.

Your father hasn’t really been a father to you for many years. I’m very sorry that, on top of years of his absence and neglect as well as the loss of your sister, you will now also have to face his death. It’s hard to lose a parent under any circumstances, and the pain you’ve had to endure because of his terrible actions won’t make it any easier. I hope you find ways to process and grieve in the ways you need, in your own time, and that your support system is there for you as you do so.


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