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.