Mothers, Stepdaughters, Grief, and Love

On the passing of my mother and the love of my blended family.

Shane Paul Neil


I don’t often post photos of my daughter (even the ones I shot). Mainly because there are people who I believe should have that privilege first. Namely Aliya King Neil and daughter’s father. I often refer to her as my stepdaughter because she has a fantastic dad whose toes I would never want to step on.

She is a terrific actress and singer, and not in a “that’s my BABY” kind of way. I got to see her perform in Heathers last night and she blew me away as usual.

In a post “give me a hug because you’re a child and I said so” world and because I’ve only been in her life for four years we have developed rituals to express our love and affection for each other.

She calls me Jonathan. She decided that before she ever met me. I believe it was to set “new nigga” boundaries, but it has carried on long after that. For me, it has become a term of endearment. I actually fear the day she calls me Shane purposefully.

She slaps my head after I shave it. Her palm hits my scalp sounds like steak hitting a cold pan. I pretend to complain that she does it too hard. She pretends that she will be gentle next time.

When she is rehearsing for a play I tell her to “break their legs.” After she performs I inform her that their legs are indeed broken.

We air hug. It has always been our way as she is not a hugger by nature. I come as close as I can without making her uncomfortable. Sometimes I come a hair closer because it’s fun making her uncomfortable.

When my mother passed I missed her in a way I hadn’t before. She was away at theater camp which meant she was out of reach, both physically and emotionally. I needed her specific brand of goofy. I needed her pirouettes in the living room and the vocal exercises she does in her bedroom where she believes nobody can hear her. All the things that were (mildly) annoying under normal circumstances I needed more than ever.

Yesterday, before her performance Aliya and I got to see her briefly. She and Aliya discussed something about undergarments that I only half heard. I went into that fugue state that dads are famous for when mothers…



Shane Paul Neil

Writer (duh) and photographer. Bylines @levelmag @complex @ebony @huffpo