Dear Family Advisor

Dad abandoned us years ago, so why should we be his caregivers now?

Last updated: May 04, 2010

My father walked out on my mom when I was in middle school. He married another woman and had two children he later left, as well. My mom took two jobs to make ends meet. Being the oldest, I became my two little brothers' full-time "mom." I even missed school if they were sick and was held back a grade.

There were so many days as a teen when I was exhausted and hungry -- and my father never gave us a dime. He now has liver cancer, and he's called us to his bedside to apologize. One of my brothers has started taking care of him. He says our father is a changed man, and that as a Christian I should forgive him and help out because he has no one. I just can't. I wish my father no harm, but I don't feel obligated to care for a man who left his own children to suffer.

He's even hinted that he's leaving his inheritance to the three of us, as if that will make me want to care for him. I cared for our mother until she drew her last breath, and I feel that extending him that same kind of loyalty would dishonor my mother. It's causing a lot of tension with my siblings. How do we deal with this?

First, no one can make you care for your father. Caregiving is a choice. Your brothers also have the right to make a choice.

We don't always care for a family member because they were good to us -- we sometimes give care because it's something we need. Perhaps your brothers are reaching out to your father partly to heal their own hearts. Perhaps taking care of him is how they need to perceive themselves.

We may think that because we lived with the same parents under the same roof we all had the same experience. This isn't true. Every child remembers childhood differently. Personality, birth order, and other life experiences color our formative years. Because you're the oldest, you may remember the hurt and devastation of divorce more acutely. You may have even shielded your younger siblings and absorbed the brunt of your mother's anger and exhaustion. Your brothers may be able to extend kindness to your father in part because of the love and stability you gave them.

Allow your brothers to do however much they want and need. Share in a peaceful manner (perhaps a letter, if talking has become too heated) that while you choose not to participate at this time, you respect their decisions. Your relationship with them matters to you and will continue long after your father is gone; don't let this situation color your love and devotion to them.

If they continue to try to coerce you or seem to be judging you, quietly but firmly refuse to get sucked in. Observe what's happening but don't let it push your buttons. By refusing to get caught up in a tangle of resentment, you're free to find other ways to connect with your brothers.

No doubt having your father back in your life is picking at old wounds. We all have them -- those tender areas that make us wince. Ironically, reflecting on the hardest times in our lives can be a gift. Life tends to circle back around and give us the opportunity to work through yet another layer, which can bring us nearer to understanding and closure.

Eventually you may come to a place where you actually want to tell your father how you feel. Some people believe we shouldn't upset a sick person in their last days, but I think sometimes they need us to be truthful. Life (and death) changes people. When you realize that you're no longer obligated to care for your father and that he can no longer hurt you, you may find that you can sit in the same room with him, listen to his apology, and even discuss the past without letting it consume you.

You might also consider reconnecting with your father's side of the family (now or after his death). Sometimes when we shut the door on one person we push others away as well -- others we might want in our lives if we knew them better. My own birth parents and my adoptive parents have all passed on, but I find that I'm still learning about them -- and about myself -- and much of my insight, reconciliation, and forgiveness is ongoing.

The older I get the more I value mercy and grace. You were there for your mom, and that meant a great deal to you. You respected and loved her dearly. I'm sure that time caring for her left memories you hold dear to your heart. If your brothers need to likewise reach out to their father and glean some good from caring for him, isn't that a good thing?

Above all, don't lose your childhood bonds now, over this. Each of us has a different path toward healing and peace with our past. This may be a part of your siblings' journeys. I hope you all can extend one other the freedom to do what's best for each of you.