Understanding my mother…now

By Caitlin Kelly

Long-time readers here know my mother and I were estranged for the final decade of her life. I won’t repeat all those details. She died in her chair, watching TV, on Feb. 15, 2020, my best friend’s birthday, in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

Her friend and executor was kind enough, at 2:00 a.m., to say Psalm 23 over her body, a gesture I’m really grateful for.

She was cremated and I was to have gone to B.C. — basically impossible thanks to Canadian border closings and quarantine demands — to scatter her ashes there.

Now they’re in our living room, in a nasty plastic container they arrived in (for now) and it’s oddly comforting.

Because our relationship was so difficult for so many years, we usually lived very far apart — I in her native New York, she in my native British Columbia.

The closest ever? I was in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she lived in Bath. We had a few very good visits, until the week I was to fly back to Canada for good, and she ended up in a locked ward of a London psychiatric hospital.

So there was always tension and fear and anxiety for me with her.

A cliche, but true — her death has released me from this, and for that I’m very glad.

It has also, thank God, lessened my anger and frustration over the behaviors and decisions that cost us thousands we couldn’t really afford, over her unwillingness to address her alcoholism, even to acknowledge my annual Christmas cards and newsletters, including 2018, when I got early-stage breast cancer. (She had had a mastectomy.)

But, to my absolute shock, she left me a significant sum of money.

I would never have imagined this.

I assumed she was, by then, broke.

I assumed whatever she might have had would go to someone else.

I assumed…nothing.

That money is now in my bank account and I keep flailing about emotionally, alternating between guilt (it’s unearned) and gratitude.

It’s even enough to buy a small house, although — as one friend said — not in a place I would actually want to live!

I spent a lot of years, decades, dreading the next argument or insult or unwanted phone call alerting me to some fresh chaos. I left her care for good at 14.

She never taught me to cook or dress or wear make-up or how to handle money.

Even my minimal sex education was a booklet she left on a table.

What I did learn was how to be independent.

How to make and keep good friendships.

How to confidently and effectively manage my own affairs.

Only in a recent conversation did I finally, belatedly, understand something fundamental about her that I had always taken too personally.

She did not invite or enjoy intimacy.

Her alcoholism and bipolar illness and tough personality all made sure it was very difficult to get close to her.

That kept her safe.

It hurt me, but with hindsight and distance I now see them as coping mechanisms.

Better late than never.

13 thoughts on “Understanding my mother…now

  1. Relationships with parents can be so complicated. I felt this tension with my own father, and such relief when he died, and then….distance has me pondering so much of what was. An honest post.

  2. I really understand this and you’ve put it so well. it’s amazing that with time, distance, and life experience we sometimes to understand those who we never imagined we ever would.

  3. A really insightful and deep article you wrote, Caitlin. Thank you fir ‘sharing so Much’ of your insight and experience ….. It Is a VERY LING JOUR
    NEY TO reach this level of deep and true and long lasting experience of coming into understanding of ‘ones mother.’
    It’s worth the therapeautic and often cathartic work one needs to do for ‘full understanding’ .
    Well written and I do hope people will use your insightful writing and journey here to help them along thus way.
    Beanie Medlicitt

  4. Susan Dunphy

    Thanks for sharing this regarding your mother. Mine had some problems similar to yours (alcoholism, depression, erratic personality); she died unexpectedly in March 2002 and I still struggle with her legacy.

  5. Deborah

    Caitlin, thank you for vulnerability and openness in sharing your story. I know that you’ve struggled with this relationship for a very long time.The epiphany at the end is stunning. At least now you can have some measure of peace.

  6. Salley Shannon

    Being bipolar and having a serious bond with alcohol put her in a cage. With luck, with strength, she might — might — have found the keys to get out. She didn’t. Time and again, both of you were scalded because of it.

    In the end, she found a way to say “I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

    I’m so glad for you, dear Cait!

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