Sudden death — my mother

jose 1

A long ago image, one of my favorites

By Caitlin Kelly

I found out Sunday and immediately knew, seeing the nursing home’s name on caller ID, what this was.

A call I dreaded, but knew was inevitable at some point.

She had not been ill, although she had many health issues — COPD, a colostomy, survivor of multiple cancers. She was 85.  I am her only child and we had been estranged, again, since 2010, for many reasons. Her alcoholism was a major one for me. I was worn out competing with it.

She was also bipolar and her manic episodes, certainly when I was in my teens and 20s,  were terrifying, often resulting in hospital stays around the world as she traveled. I was 19, living alone and attending university, and would find calls on my answering machine from consular officials, from the Americans (she was) and Canadians (I am) asking me what to do.

I knew?

It was a lot.

She had been in a nursing home since 2011 when she became too ill to live independently. She lived, at the end, in Victoria, B.C. as far as one can get from my home in N.Y., another obstacle to visits, even if wanted.

Which we often didn’t want.

She had previously lived in many places, including Roswell, NM, Woods Hole, MA, Toronto, Montreal, Bath and Gibsons. B.C. where she joined the volunteer sea rescue crew, bouncing around in a Zodiac and tending her garden.

In Victoria, she had a dear friend locally who will  take her things for now, and who is executor of her will. She will be cremated and I’ll likely go out in a few months to take her ashes back to the part of mainland B.C. she wants them shared. Sadly, there are not enough people to make a funeral or memorial.

I am a stew of emotions, as anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows.

Cynthia had, in many ways, an amazing life, blessed with Mensa-level intelligence, beauty and enough inherited money she didn’t have to work after her 40s.

She traveled the world alone, even to remote Pacific Islands, and made friends in Australia, England and in Canada, where she moved from New York when she married my Canadian father — at 17. They met in Eze-en-Haut, France at a party, and barely knew one another before marrying at St. Bartholomew Cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City — two wealthy, charming, strong-headed people…who made me!

They were quite the pair and we moved to London from Vancouver while my father worked for the BBC making films. She was adventurous all her life.

She never attended university but worked as a radio reporter, TV talk show host and magazine editor and writer.

She met her lifelong best friend, an East Indian travel agency owner in Toronto, Molly, when she interviewed her for a story.

She had a wardrobe of wigs, sometimes changing her hair color several times a week.

Her black mink had a brilliant emerald green silk lining.

She was glamorous as hell — and also fiercely independent and private.

I knew very little of her.

I was sent to boarding school at eight and summer camps ages 8-14 when I left her care to live with my father. We had lived in Toronto, Montreal and Cuernavaca together.

I never lived with her again after that.

Because she always lived so far away, or vice versa, we saw one another maybe once a year. As she traveled, she would import me once a year to wherever she was at the time: Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji.

Some years went by with no visits, due to rancor.

The closest we were, emotionally and physically, was the year I was 25 and living in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she was living, as always alone, in Bath. We saw one another more often then.


She taught me to play gin rummy.

To travel safely as a woman alone.

To set a pretty dining table.

To fight hard for what you believe in.

To talk to anyone interesting, anywhere.

We played ferocious games of jacks — her long fingernails, she knew, a competitive advantage

Some photos:



Ooohhhhh, we were competitive!



Love this one


jose 4

That’s me, maybe age five or six, in Toronto.

57 thoughts on “Sudden death — my mother

  1. carolyn

    I am so sorry for your loss. No matter whether you were estranged, losing your mother is still devastating on a very deep level. I am not estranged from mine, although I was cut off from my family for many years and there is much that was left unsaid when I was “invited” back into the fold. Even so, I dread the day I will lose mine. Thinking of you…

    1. Roma

      Interesting blog I learnt some stuff about you – and I think I remember meeting your mother once in london
      Shame you didn’t hv a relationship with her
      Must hv been tough

  2. dpascone

    This is a powerful and moving piece. I too, have a mother in the “Not made for TV movie” category. So also thank you for honesty and grace in not hiding who she was or who you are.

    1. Thank you….none of us is perfect, for sure, and she had some great qualities and some not-great ones. I think she wasn’t really up for being someone’s mother — as hers was terrible to her. So that was hard.

      When your own mother doesn’t seem to want you, it causes some deep wounds. But I am really blessed with deeply loving friends and husband. That makes all the difference.

  3. I am sorry for your loss. I had an off-again relationship with my dad and grieving him was complicated. I hope you give yourself some extra self-care as you navigate your grief and feelings. We all mourn our parents differently especially when our relationships were difficult. Sending you hugs.

  4. My condolences, Caitlin. To me, you look like her and in telling her biography, I can see some of you in her. Sometimes, being estranged is the best thing – being together just doesn’t work.

    Try to be gentle with yourself as you grieve. This won’t be easy.

  5. I am so sorry for your loss. as you know, my own relationship with my mother was complicated and not easy to say the least, and I know that when there is this kind of loss it is not only for who the person was (legally, your mother), but for who she could have been to you, a nurturing mother. I’m happy that you have memories of the things she taught you that have had meaning in your life, even if she was not the best at being a parent. your pictures are lovely, and she sounds like such an interesting and intelligent person, and she has passed those traits on to you as well.

  6. Oh, Caitlin. We’ve had back-and-forth on mothers. I get a bit of what you’re going through, but reading your story–I realize you went through far more isolation. I’m sorry for that. And for you having to figure it all out now, in the end. Sending a large hug and good energy to get through it.

  7. I saw my father a couple weeks before he passed away. It wasn’t pretty. We both got a lot of things off of our minds we didn’t want to take on the next leg of the trip. Not pretty, as I said,, but very helpful. I wish you could have had that. I can see certain parallels between my relationship with my folks and yours, even though our upbringings are very different. Even though I never felt like my dad took any pleasure in being my father, or that he took any pride in me or the things I did, I admired his devotion to duty. Raising me up to be a man was no labor of love, it was just a job, but he did it.
    Okay, this is advice, call it what it is, but I offer it humbly and in the gentle spirit of friendship: Feel your feelings. Don’t try to make sense of them or separate the good from the bad ones. The less you try to sort them out the easier it will be on you emotionally and, seeing how she’s no longer with us, your feelings are the most important.
    OK now watch this:

    1. Thanks.

      It would have been nice to have a “closing of the books” and my father kept urging me over and over to go out there…But she had also told my best friend a few years ago to tell me not to visit and when he went out she was pretty nasty about me as well. So the thought of spending $$$$$ and flying all that way to potentially face rejection? No. I am sorry I didn’t but also had to fight to protect myself too.

      1. And now I am sick as hell with a horrible cold. This all happened Sunday — two days after I lost a $3,000 magazine feature I had been working on for months.

        I am hiding beneath the damn duvet til spring!!

  8. It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s mother, because we only have one.

    Je te présente mes sincères condoléances.

    I lost mine in June 1997, twenty-three years ago. I still grieve the loss.

    Will you be flying out West for the funeral?

    1. Sending my deepest sympathies. None of this is easy. Your honesty and acceptance of what has been are inspiring though.

      You have also built a real community of Support here on your blog. In these comments, I recognize names of some of your other readers and feel connected with them through you and your writing. In this sense, you have built a family based on your values and your ability to express things that resonate with so many others. ❤️

      Wishing you continued strength and resilience on this part of your journey. All of us out here send you our kindest regards.

      1. Margaret

        I agree. I’ve been reading your blog for years now Caitlin and although you don’t know me, I feel as though I know you a little bit.
        I am truly sorry for your loss. When I saw the title of your post this morning, I thought “Oh no”. How devastating for you. My thoughts are with you.

      2. Thanks, Ginny…

        I so appreciate this little corner of the Internet and the kindness I feel here. It’s really comforting, and I feel lucky, for sure, that anyone stops by to visit, read, comment — and return! It really means a lot, so thank you for such kind words.

  9. Hello Caitlin,
    Losing a parent PLUS 3000 words — a miserable, and surely not a short, moment,

    “I think she wasn’t really up for being someone’s mother — as hers was terrible to her.” Family psychology legacies are SO hard to overcome, needless to say. My grandparents all had died before I was born. Mostly my mother told cooking stories about hers; about her father, all I know is that he was derisive toward his youngest of eight daughters (and the only one born in the US). Despite the father’s derision, she was the only daughter who got herself to college and a career teaching languages.

    “When your own mother doesn’t seem to want you, it causes some deep wounds.” Or, as in my case, when ambivalently she seems to want you TOO MUCH, creating toxic-level dependency. Still, my relationship with my mother improved somewhat during her last 10 years, spent in her 90s as a stroke victim in a nursing home — when she was dependent on me. Aware of my contribution to her wellbeing, she also forgot how to perennailly criticize me. Still, her not-suddden death was traumatic to me and even remains so in the sense that aspects of her life, our relationship, remain preoccupying even 20 years later. Complicated.

    I wish you a warm duvet and all the human wamth (plenty, I read in your posts) available..
    Sending my synpathy from Harlem (and Paris, by turns).

    Ellen Count

    1. Thanks….There is a lot of stuff in these relationships and some of us sit on it in silence for long long time.

      There are people who understand who I am and why — and others who don’t. Those who know this history get it and are respectful of it.

      I hear you on that dependency. When my mother wasn’t absent she could suddenly need help — and when no one else gave it, I did.

  10. Joan Nassivera

    I have never read as honest or as powerful an assessment of a mother-daughter relationship. What a writer you are, my friend. Not a wasted word or emotion. What a mother she was , and I say that with a sharp intake of breath. I am sending you warmth and love and strength. Let us get together soon for tea – or something stronger – and conversation.

  11. Caitlin, this post is a beautiful tribute to her memory. In some small way, I feel connected to her and Molly through you.
    Grief has strange shapes and I send you love and a big hug.

  12. A blessing and a curse, a mother like yours. She gave you so much, I sense, that makes you who you are. Yet she also denied you the support of a true parent. Still, a huge loss and one most of us never entirely get over (I lost my mum in ’89). Sincere condolences, and hope the worst of the emotional storm passes with the head cold!

  13. My condolences. Thank you for sharing your memories. My own mother is alive and well-ish, but I totally relate to key aspects of your experience. Rancour, bitterness, madness, control, volatility, self-sabotage – I could go on.
    I have no doubt her eventual passing will do little to alleviate my own conflicted emotions.
    For better or worse, we’re marked. No escaping it.
    Looking at it clearly and honestly, as you have done, is about the best we can do.
    I wish you all the resources you need to move forward cleanly.

    1. Thanks….it is a club of us, people who can never just pick a sweet little greeting card for Mother’s Day.

      It has been exhausting for years to hide much of this and how it has affected and changed me. In some ways, for the better — I work hard at my marriage and friendships because I could never turn to my mother for reliable interest or comfort. So those are pluses.

      But to never feel valued, deeply, by your own parent? That’s a tough one and I am really sorry you know this road, too. I think it’s helpful (friends, therapy, whatever) to even just acknowledge this stew….not doing so is really difficult.

  14. Jan Jasper

    Wow, I’ve re-read your post about your mother a few times, it is so beautifully written, engrossing, and moving. You’ve done a fantastic job of describing the highs and lows of the person your mom was – and your difficult relationship with her. You have certainly got – whether by nature or (lack of) nurture, it’s hard to say – her best qualities: Intelligence, curiosity, and adventurousness. And that’s an interesting observation, that you’ve worked hard on your wonderful friendships and marriage because you knew you could not expect anything good from your mom.
    I have been reading your blog for a long time and I feel that I know you – even though we’ve never talked, much less met – because of the insights, astute observations, and personal experiences you share. And you indeed have a caring and thoughtful group of followers here; I hope we can offer you some comfort.
    Losing one’s mother is probably one of the hardest experiences of life, whether it was a close relationship or a very painful one.
    My mother died three and a half years ago, and – even though we sometimes went weeks without a phone call – she was probably my best friend. I miss her terribly every day. I try to focus on how lucky I am to have had the sort of relationship we had. She was an amazing woman.
    I’d say you’re lucky that you’re _not_ the executor. That can be an extremely time-consuming job, particularly when there are half-siblings.
    Sending you a hug,

    1. Thanks, Jan, for such kind words.

      The hardest part of estrangement is simply not knowing anything about my mother (complicated by a friend of hers, too tedious to detail here) and knowing she didn’t want to know what I was up to — like my last book, my 2nd marriage and many other fun things. It’s both very kind — and odd — that people I have not met and likely won’t — are so much nicer!

      But then…less history. Less drama. Less expectation.

      As an only child, the will is not an issue — it will be an unholy mess when my father dies (4 half-siblings, one who hates me and one I have never even met.)

      Our family…

      1. Jan Jasper

        Ah, I knew you had half-siblings, but I didn’t remember if they were from your mom or dad. Let’s hope your dad doesn’t stick you with the executor role! “Caitlin, the smart, responsible one….” I don’t recall if one needs to give written consent for that. If so, you’re safe, as I doubt you would accept that burden.

      2. Nope! It’s a family friend of his…but I don’t think it will be a smooth, easy event. I hope so, but there’s a lot of mixed emotions in that pile of people. I am the oldest, and the rest are 5, 10 and 23 years younger.

  15. Susan Dunphy

    Am sorry to hear of your mother’s death. I too had a complicated relationship with my mother (although not quite as difficult as yours) and can definitely sympathize with your mixed feelings at this time. My mother died unexpectedly at the age of 61 (she went to sleep and didn’t wake up). I am still not sure, almost 18 years later, if I have ever (or ever will) completely resolved my feelings about or issues with my mother. And that you have a cold at this time is not surprising-in the year after my mother’s death, if there was some bug floating around in the air, I got it. And at least for me, the hardest thing is that very few people truly understand one having mixed feelings about a mother. While I have a good therapist that I speak to, it’s not always the same thing. For what it’s worth, in the year after my mother died, I think I cried more that year than I did in the previous 5 years. My best suggestion is take care of yourself and talk to a therapist if you need to do so.

    1. Thanks… I’ve been with my therapist a long time, so I do feel she “gets” this. I saw her this morning.

      But I have been shocked at how upset this has made me and likely will for a while.

      It’s very true that people who have experienced this sort of relationship know its challenges — and it’s almost impossible to explain to others, so I don’t try. It can make me feel more lonely and isolated and with no desire to get into all the details.

  16. Lesley Turner

    So very sorry. There are many of us who do not model their own ‘motherhood in action’ on what we learned from our own mothers, but I know that the volatility of my mother made me tremendously adaptable and emotionally intelligent. There is a web article somewhere on the positive character traits that difficult mothers gift their children- we can turn out real GOOD!
    It can take years to rationalize our experiences, yet what I found was, that the more I knew about her own younger life, the more I understood her and thus my experience. My mother denied me at the end, and yet she is within my DNA and I embrace the glimpses of love that I saw and know, that I have a tremendous capacity for loving others despite not knowing the love of a mother.
    Your writing shows me that you have courage and fortitude, you have patience and endurance, yu are insightful and empathetic, and most of all beautifully, wonderfully YOU.
    Sending much love.

    1. Thanks for such kind words…It is difficult to go through life un-mothered (my stepmother wasn’t much better) so when others decide to love and value you, you think..Oh, I can’t be all THAT bad. But you always wonder.

      My husband wonders how I turned out the way I did…I am lucky that others saw in me what she didn’t or couldn’t. Her mother was very difficult. I knew that.

      But I did not want children. It was too much just handling her.

  17. Jonathan Barlow

    We’ve lived very similar relationships with our mothers. Perhaps their similarities was the reason for their strong friendship. I do remember your mum’s visits with us in Strathgowan though, with affection. I do hope that you and Jose are well, happy and somehow able to flourish in these times. Best wishes, J

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