Back From Hiatus: Why I Went Away

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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. That she never really forgave me for writing genre fiction ("When are you going to write a real novel?"), but even so was my go-to beta reader, with a sharp editorial eye that shaped all my books. 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. Not until the very last week of her life, for instance, did she finally yield 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.

19 comments to Back From Hiatus: Why I Went Away

  • Victoria, so sorry to hear of your loss. I hope that the coming months and years will bring you healing.

  • Losing a parent is tougher when you’ve cared for them even in the smallest of ways.
    My deepest sympathy for your loss. Focusing on her lifestyle should help. She seems to have lived a quite remarkable life.

  • Victoria Strauss

    Thanks to everyone for the condolences and kind words–I truly appreciate them all.

  • Victoria Strauss

    I remember that too! She was tough right up into her 70s, when she traveled all over to write travel guides for Berlitz. She would have kept doing it, too, but for the 2008 economic downturn, which resulted in the cancellation of several of her projects. Thanks, Tom.

  • Victoria Strauss

    Diana–she didn’t even tell Rob and me until nearly three months after her diagnosis, and then only because of pressure from a mutual friend. She was very secretive about her illness; initially we were forbidden from telling anyone at all, though after a while, when she could no longer hide the fact that she was sick, she became a bit more open.

    I’m not surprised she gave you the wrong impression about her status. She did a lot of fibbing to brush people off, because she didn’t want to talk or even think about her cancer. She did the same to me. Throughout her illness, I mostly had to rely on others to find out what was going on. This lack of honesty and openness led to a lot of unnecessary suffering–for her but for us as well. I learned a lot from her over the course of my life, and one of the things I learned–and hopefully will remember for my own old age–was how not to deal with a terminal illness.

  • I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Sorry for your loss. Your mom sounded like she’d be fun to debate with. I lost my mom in 2006 and still miss her.

  • I am glad to know that such a remarkable woman lit the world with her independent fires. In sharing her story and your feelings about her, you celebrate her life. I am currently helping to care for two feisty mothers very attuned to living – and dying – on their own terms. You help me know I am not alone. Bolster my respect, patience and compassion. Thank you, Victoria. Write again when you can. You are a valued voice. And know that as you grieve, pure, positive, grateful vibrations surround you! Cyndi

  • Diana Strauss Simmons

    It’s a shame that as family I was never told of her cancer until Aunt Alice told me in 2014 when my mother died. She had me under the impression that she was in remission.

  • Tom Storey

    Thank you. You know you have my condolences. I will never forget our walk up at Mohonk 20 years ago in the snow — Alice kept up with us and I remember saying to Rob “she’s tough”.

  • Orna Ross

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss, Victoria, and thank you so much for sharing this. What an honest and beautiful portrait. Sending sympathy and every good wish from London.

  • Deborah Vallez

    What an amazing woman. No doubt she was so proud of and happy for you! I still talk to my mother and can almost tell what her answers would be to my questions. Sending you hugs and love…

  • Thia Rose

    Dear Victoria, What a beautiful tribute to your mom. She sounds amazing. I think losing my mother was the hardest thing I have ever done. She also had a long drawn-out illness and our relationship had many similarities to yours and your mom’s. When my mom passed, it blew a big, smokin’ hole in my heart that took a very long time to heal. Years. I almost couldn’t talk for the first year. I wanted to wear black and stay home, but I couldn’t in this crazy fast-paced modern world of ours. A friend bought me a book called, How to Survive The Loss of a Love, She insisted that I read it. It is written by many bereavement professionals and is written in such a way that it can be picked up and put down, kind of like a reference book. I would highly recommend it. I found it to be very helpful when I was having a crisis after about a year (and thought that I should be “over it by now”). Sending love and hugs your way.

  • I’m sorry for your loss but glad that you were able to be there for your mother in these final years. I wish you peace and send you love. Thanks for telling us about this lovely lady, not exactly typical of her time!

  • Victoria, my deepest condolences. Moms are ever present. Sounds like Heaven has gained an angel. I love the work you do for so many writers and authors. All the best to you and your family.

  • Bev M Cooke

    Oh, Victoria, I’m so sorry for your loss and the road you and she have traveled these last years. I still feel an empty space at the loss of my mother, 30 years ago, and we weren’t as close as you and yours. It’s hard, and will be hard for a long time, but while you never really “get over it” you can come to terms with it and you get used to the empty spaces. Prayers and thoughts are with you.

  • Stephanie St.Clair

    I am so sorry for your loss. Losing my mother was the hardest thing for me. Even now seven years later, when I’m caught in the twilight between sleep and being awake, for just a moment I think she’s still alive. Your mother will always be with you, whether in spirit or memories. So be gentle with yourself and take it one day at a time or one minute at a time if that’s what it takes. {{{Hugs}}}

  • Peter Dudley

    Much sympathy and warm regards, Victoria.

  • If your experience is at all like mine, you will often feel as if she is still there, just about to knock on the door, just about to come into the kitchen, just about to call for you at night.

    Please accept my condolences. I admire the work you do for writers, and I hope that your future holds many fruitful days.

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