Back From Hiatus: Why I Went Away

I don’t often post about personal stuff here. But I wanted to let you all know why I vanished abruptly at the beginning of May (which is also why, for the past couple of years, this blog has been idle for weeks at a time). My mother, Alice Fellows, died on May 14, after a long illness.

Probably taken in the early 1950s,
when she was in her 30s

Who was my mother? There are many ways I can answer that question.

I can say that she was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1926 (or possibly 1928–she was famously cagey about her age) in a house that is now on the National Historic Register. That she attended Hudson Strode’s famous creative writing class while at the University of Alabama; that the novel she began there, Laurel, was published by Harcourt Brace when she was just 22, to praise from the New York Times and Kirkus, among others. That, eager to escape the South, she moved to New York City in the early 1950s to attend graduate school at Columbia University, where she met and married my father. That in the succeeding years she gave up writing fiction, but earned a masters degree and did much of the work for a PhD. That when my parents divorced in 1977, she moved back to New York and, not having held a job for more than two decades, landed a secretarial position at a publisher and eventually worked her way up to Senior Editor with Frommer’s. That in her later years she returned to fiction writing, completing a historical novel about the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

The historic Tuscaloosa home where she grew up

I can say that my mother was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and also one of the most stubborn, independent, self-absorbed, secretive, and fearless. That she loved to travel more than anything (in her 70s, after retiring from Frommer’s, she landed her dream job: freelance travel book writer). That for most of my life she was my closest friend, the person I could share everything with and tell anything to, my best-of-all-time movie-museum-concert-shopping buddy.

I can say that she was my go-to beta reader, with a sharp editorial eye that shaped all my books–but that she never really forgave me for writing genre fiction (“When are you going to write a real novel?”). That I regret the semi-estrangement that grew between us in the last decade of her life, as she became increasingly obsessive and bitter about the state of the world and the indignities of aging–and more and more angry with me for the worry I couldn’t hide about her obviously declining health. I tried once to tell her that the people who love you are going to worry about you whether you want them to or not, and you really need to just forgive them. She didn’t want to hear it.

On the birthday she claimed as her 90th,
though it may actually have been her
87th or 89th

I can say that her final illness–a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer in 2013–changed everything (our semi-estrangement vanished as if it had never been) and nothing (see stubborn, independent, self-absorbed, and secretive, above). This nearly three-year ordeal was extraordinarily difficult not only for her, but for family and loyal friends, as we banded together to make it possible for her to go on living independently in her home, as she wished. Because we honored her, we honored her decisions, even where we felt they were bad ones. For example, it wasn’t until the very last week of her life that she finally yielded to our pleas to accept in-home and hospice care.

I can say all these things. But they don’t really add up to a picture of my mother, or help me figure out how I feel now she’s gone. I’m sure that many of you reading will be familiar with the tangle of relief and grief that comes at the end of a loved one’s drawn-out illness, especially where there is suffering. I still catch my breath every time the phone rings. When I forget that her struggle and ours is over, I’m still stalked by the worry and dread that, over the past three years, have been my daily companions.

I do know that I am not yet able to imagine the world without her. In my mind she’s still in her New York apartment, reading or writing or researching, attending operas and concerts and dance recitals, going to lunch with friends, planning that trip to India she always wanted to make–living a life that was lone but not lonely, always full, and always, always on her own terms.


  1. This is a beautiful tribute, thank you for sharing. I'm sorry for your loss, Victoria. I joke the day they cut my umbilical cord is the day my Mom died. I was enriched by her life, saddened by her death and cherish our memories together.

  2. Yes, I know this well, and heartily sympathize. We lost my father last year, one day shy of his 91st birthday. My mother has been in a confused, often unresponsive state for so long now that I'm still shocked when I remember that it was only in 2010 we went to what was to be her last professional meeting. The saddest thing is that every so often something clicks in her mind and she's almost back to her old self, asking about the elections, holding long conversations with us and remembering things we thought she'd long forgotten. Then it's back to, "Where am I? Why am I here?" or just single words- "Confused." "Hungry." And we're left to agonize over the question of whether she's really, somehow in there all the time and we are missing some trick to free her mind from its cage.

    I've always been an optimistic person, but this slow, living loss of a person you love dearly just grinds my soul away. I expect I'll recover to an extent after it's over, but I've seen my own end in her and I don't think things will ever really be the same.

  3. I lost my mom in 2008. We had a difficult relationship. There were times I just could not talk to her. After she died, I found myself re-evaluating our relationship in the light of some experiences at her end of life process. This didn't erase the difficulties, but put them in perspective.
    Even so, the loss is profound, even 8 years later. Hugs, my friend. I pray you will find the peace you need. We never "get over" the loss, but learn to live with that hole they left in our lives.

  4. My deepest condolences, Victoria. Your mother sounds like a wonderful person and I am touched that you have shared her story with us. Although there is still a hole in my life where my parents and parents-in-law used to be, and I think of them often, over time I have become reconciled to their loss. You may already know that, but I would have found it hard to believe a few years ago.

  5. An absolutely beautifully poignant piece. My sympathies. We're a couple of weeks shy of the first year anniversary of my mother's death. It sinks in, in stages. xx

  6. This hit home for me. I am so very sorry for you and the loss of your mother. My mother suffered and passed from cancer as well. It is a horrible thing to have to watch as well as experience.
    As sad as the whole scenario is here, it is a beautiful remembrance of your mother and written so eloquently.

  7. Thanks to everyone for the wonderful comments, and all the words of condolence and support. I truly appreciate it. Thank you.

  8. Hello Victoria,

    My condolences to you and your precious family. I'm sure she'll be a spitfire nagging the angels and the literary giants of ages gone by about how things should be done. :o) When she gets settled into paradise certainly that trip to India is in the cards for her in pure spirit.

    Thank you for sharing her remarkable journey in life. Your long suffering has produced a daughter that she is very proud of until she begins to nitpick out of being without ease.

    Be well and remember you can still pray to her spirit. The love and joy you shared with her doesn't end at physical mortality.

    Good Journey.

  9. My deepest condolences to you and yours, Victoria. Thank you for sharing a small part of your mother with all of us. Grief, as many here would agree, never leaves us. Instead it starts out encompassing everything and eventually decreases until it forms a hole in our lives in the shape of the one we lost. Fill that hole with all these memories, all the good things, and one day you'll find it overflowing with the essence of your mother's love for you.

    Be well. Thinking of you in this difficult time.

    Ekta Garg

  10. Dear Victoria,
    I am so sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us. My mother died thirty-one years ago, and I still find myself thinking, "I must tell Mum about that" — not very often, but it does happen.
    Your mother sounds like someone you should be proud of. For the era she lived in, she excelled.
    Kind regards,

  11. I am very sorry to hear about your loss! All the Best from my side, my thoughts are with you.

  12. Hello. Your mother was a remarkable woman and this is a wonderful homage to her. I'm sorry for your loss and I hope you find peace.

  13. She sounds like the kind of mom that other people don't get why you roll your eyes when they gush about her. The best kind. 🙂

    Bon Voyage, Alice.

  14. Thank you for taking the time to write that. It's a hard thing to lose a parent. Even harder, I think, to watch how age and infirmity can whittle someone who is used to being strong and independent. I can't help but feel what a gift you were and are to each other. That's how we pass them on: we share stories of who they were and how they twined into our lives. Your mother sounds fierce and wonderful. I wish I could have known her. I lost my dad, another force of nature, and not a day goes by that I don't feel him. We do our best for them, as they did for us – whatever it is, and however much we might disagree. And I think they know that. I'm hoping that the pain will fade, leaving fabulous memories of that shopping, museum hopping, travel and creativity. Big hugs to you.

  15. It's those complex, difficult people we miss the most–we are never finished with them! And yet, they live on in us, and, as time passes, I hope you'll find solace in that. Condolences to you and your family.

  16. *Hugs* It's never easy, but you'll always carry her in your heart. You are a tremendous daughter.

  17. Victoria,
    What a beautiful tribute. Your Mom would be proud.

    Not sure who wrote this but it helped me when I lost my mom, my dad and my twin brother – Grief is the expression of how well you loved and were loved. So embrace it.

    You have my heartfelt sympathy extended to you and your family.

  18. Victoria, my own mother was born in 1928, and we lost her in 2013.

    We are never ready for them to leave us behind, never. My heart aches for you and also breathes out a long, yogic breathe while holding your heart in mine for a moment, in an effort to feel the pain-tinged relief of releasing her to the next leg, the final leg, the leg she must either do alone or with unseen, all-knowing beings and loved-ones also passed on.

    I breathe out for what we know, and what we do not. But mostly, just for you as you grapple with the space she has left for you to fill with memories, pride, and love. You loved her well. That is clear.

    Thank you for your open post and beautiful tribute to a mother who was clearly remarkable. I cannot say I am surprised…the apple theory and all. May you be buoyed by love, support, and just enough silence to feel the heartbeat of your relationship still pulsing.

  19. This is a beautiful post. We are going through something like this right now with my mom and it's comforting to know we aren't the only ones. I'm so sorry about your loss.

  20. Beautiful and gut-wrenching post. I'm just starting down the path of overseeing both parents through their last phase of life. It helps knowing other's have been there before me. Thank you for sharing.

  21. Condolences, Victoria! My Dad died of cancer in 2009 and I still think, "Dad would have loved this!" And regret that he didn't live long enough for me to buy him an iPad; he was a true silver surfer who would have loved to have snuggled up in bed with the world's newspapers instead of getting up and turning off the computer in a cold room. Like your mother, he was an independent person who would much rather be looking after us than have us help him. (His last major project for me, a few months before cancer took him, was a floor to ceiling book case). You'll never get over it, but you will remember all these wonderful things about her. Hugs!

  22. What a luminous, beautiful post, Victoria. I'm so sorry for your loss, but I'm so grateful that you've shared your mother with us today. Thinking of you.

  23. My sympathies for your loss. I know how it feels and I still don't think I've come to terms with my mom not being here anymore. She was in similar circumstances, but lived with my sister before she finally succumbed to a stroke. That was in 2004.

    Let yourself grieve when you need to. A mother is special, even when they are difficult at times. A mother is forever that person we first knew and loved.

  24. I am so very sorry for your loss. May her memory be a blessing to you, and to everyone who loves her.

  25. I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. As you probably know already, she remains with you and everyone who loved her in countless ways. After a time, I came to enjoy seeing my mother–young, happy, free of pain and worry–in the occasional dream. May you reach that place quickly.

  26. So sorry for your loss. I'm still getting ambushed by memories from my father's passing last August. Those who have been there know. Sending hugs and good wishes x

  27. I'm so sorry, Victoria. **hugs** Even years later, it still sometimes is hard to realize my mother is gone. Give yourself time, walk through the grief and don't try to analyze it…just let it be what it is. 🙁 Peace to you and your family in this time.

  28. Condolences to you and the rest of your family, from another daughter who lost her mother to cancer. Thank you for all the work you do on this blog, but we will be happy to wait until you're prepared to post regularly again!

  29. I am sorry for your loss. It's been a year since I helped my father through his last illness and I still can't believe he's gone. I still reach for the phone when I hear a story on NPR I know he'd be interested in.

    Know that grief and loss take their own time and there's no right way to navigate them.

    Thinking of you.

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MAY 9, 2016

Writer Beware Blog on Hiatus (Again)

JUNE 9, 2016

BookLife Prize in Fiction