Bye, Ma: A letter to my mother following her passing

Shane Paul Neil
ZORA
Published in
7 min readAug 13, 2023

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My mother, Cynthia Rose Neil, died this weekend at the age of 77, two days before I planned a surprise visit. That visit would have ended nearly a dozen years of having not seen her or my father in person. A self-induced exile resulting from childhood trauma and a myriad of unresolved issues. In lieu of getting to see her one last time, I wrote this letter.

Links for context. Originally published on shanepaulneil.com.

Hi Ma,

They say life comes at you fast. It appears that death comes at you even faster. The last time we spoke, I asked you how the garden was coming along. You told me that you couldn’t garden anymore. The stooping, bending, and kneeling were more than you could handle. You tended your garden my entire life, so many crops of tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini grew from your soil. You even kept the rose bush I bought you as a young man alive for nearly two decades. You transfered them from our garden in the Bronx to your home in Virginia where you and Pop would spend your golden years. You not being in that garden set off a ticking clock in the back of my mind.

I got the news in the middle of your grandson’s football practice. Pop called and broke the news, “Your mother died today.” Ever the stoic he tried to keep his voice flat and strong. Instead, it was hollow and wavered on the tears that choked him. I only ever experienced this version of him when his mother died.

By now, if souls and the afterlife do exist, you know I planned to drive to Virginia today and surprise you and Pop. Bridging that physical gap between us was long overdue. Years ago I decided that as much as I loved you and you loved me that love managed proximity poorly. The last time I saw you in person you lashed out at my brother. Your words hurt me, so I know that he was completely folded. It was the last in a long line of holidays, birthdays, cookouts, and visits that in one way or another, were marred by arguments or worse. I decided that my presence was a trigger, and I owed it to both of us to not induce whatever thing manifested that ugliness.

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Shane Paul Neil
ZORA

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