Back to My Roots

Week one of chemotherapy and radiation is behind us.  Onto week two.

This beautiful Easter holiday weekend had me aching for my family. Holidays in my family were always special. I come from a long line of “party throwers” and “party-goers” and given the sheer size of my family, there was no such thing as a small celebration. In fact, in my family, there was no small anything.

But, after my parents’ divorce, I stopped enjoying family gatherings of this magnitude. Or more truthfully, family gatherings in general.

My family dynamics began with my grandparents, two amazing forces in life. My Grandfather, Jim Varley, would walk into a room and captivate his audience in a heart beat. He was fiercely competitive; and always wanted the best from his children and grandchildren. His love of music, food, entertaining, sports, and his uncanny good looks made him quite the show stopper. My grandmother, June, would make Emily Post and her etiquette rules look second rate when compared to her spectacular party throwing, perfect manners, and impeccable correspondence. This social fortitude was maintained while raising 14 children, running soup kitchens, and being an amazing Catholic. (I have to also mention, that my Grandmother’s sense of style was flawless, timeless…and I was always holding my breath as she entered a room.)

My own mother was “the chief” of their pack of 14, and she is powerhouse in her own right. A woman with a very sharp, intellectual mind.  She inherited her mother’s beauty and love for traditions; she has her father’s charisma and a secret yearning to be the best at all times.  But my mother is also different from her family in many ways.  She always urged, even demanded, that we wear our emotions on our sleeves and encouraged us to communicate our feelings openly.  Given that there were six of us, and all six of us were very verbal, many opinions and endless talking filled the house I grew up in. In her recent years, she enjoys smaller gatherings and a peaceful life on the beaches of 30-A. Still a very strong woman of faith, she never gives up on anyone. My mother’s hugs could heal the world.

My father is a more reserved man, kind and gentle.  He is a caregiver, a thinker, a scholar. My father has a smile that could light up a room. And he has always understood my wild streak, allowing me to make mistakes and letting me find my own way. Falling fifth in a line of six, I was constantly the talk of the family. “Alix should do this, Alix should have done that, Alix should be more like this sister, or that brother”…

I went to Auburn University in search of some peace and quiet, where I found a way to silence the opinions of my family, and learn to be myself.  Or, rather, a younger version of myself. Many years have gone by since I decided to take my own path…years filled with both good decisions and bad decisions. Subconsciously, I was fighting hard to distance myself from my family, and finally found refuge in Carl’s family here in New Orleans, where everything was a little easier, a lot smaller, and a lot less theatrical. I have felt an amazing sense of home since I met them, knowing that simply being myself was more than okay.  And never did I feel like I had to be more than that.

But, when all of this started and I was disheveled and speechless (for once), my family was there to pick up the slack, doing all the things I could not even think to ask for. Right now, my sister Lindsey is house-hunting, in order to finally make our lifelong dream of raising our kids to be best friends a reality.  My oldest sister Vicky has sent us all the books and cooking supplies needed to keep Carl and I reading and cooking (our true passions) throughout this journey. My brother Bradford, always with his big heart and pragmatic outward appearance, gave me sound financial advice first and then followed up with boundless encouragement. He even offered up an apology for a recent tiff. My oldest brother Trip, the most Varley of them all, just wanted to let me talk…to see how I was really feeling. As always, right there at a time when I really needed to talk out all my fears without judgement. My baby sister Fallon has been her bigger-than-life self and continues to send me amazing digital videos and uplifting messages daily to keep my attitude positive.  My father has shared his amazing words of comfort and admitted that though bad things do happen, you have to press on. And my mother…well, she is recovering from a hip surgery. And yet, in her usual fashion, still ready to jump (literally) on a plane and come take care of us.

It is difficult to believe that Carl’s diagnosis came just 21 days ago today.

As I sit here looking into his tired eyes, listening to machines pump him full of what I like to imagine is the “magic cure” that will erase this madness called cancer, I even now find my thoughts drifting to my family. I am thinking about how deep our roots run within us.  I am thinking of how my mother’s example of verbal exhaustion gave us quite a large and rare gift. I am thinking that I know my siblings and mother better than most, as they do me. In fact, they often know me better than I know myself.

My family is a force to be reckoned with…loud, emotional, competitive, and sometimes downright intrusive. They love to talk to you, about you, and all around you. And it has kept me somewhat distant from them in recent years, perhaps because I was not open to seeing the true beauty of it all.

But, this is my family.  And through cancer, God has revealed to me how lucky I am to have them at my side. These people who will be there always, and who know me absolutely. I am blessed beyond words to have this family. I am an O’Neil, and for the first time in a really long time, I know what a true blessing it is to be a part of all this chaos.

I have had a harder time writing this week, although recent reflection on my life has shown me that blessings seem to come through in the craziest of ways. Through this searching I have realized that family is everything. Family comes in all shapes and sizes. Some born, some created, some chosen, some not.  I urge you to find the blessings in your family, as we fight to save our own young family.  And hope, one day, that our children will know just how much we love them.



3 thoughts on “Back to My Roots

  1. Alix, I am deeply moved and touched by your poignant reflections of your family, and what it was to grow up as an O’Neil. I will always have a soft spot for all of you kids, and always enjoyed bantering with your lovely Mother. Please know that I lift you and Carl up to our Lord, in prayer. As I told you kids, and all of the other students who pass through my room, “You’ll be my kids for the rest of my life, and I’m always just a phone call, email, or Facebook post away.” Keep in touch, and don’t hesitate to let me know what I can do to help! Fondly, Kelly Sims

  2. My eyes are filled with tears…tears of sadness that you and your family must face this unknown madness. The tears are also of joy…for God in return has blessed you with a new awakening and appreciation of your family, and most of all what is beautiful about you! My love and prayers go with you.

  3. Alix & Carl,
    Been thinkin of you all & praying God’s healing comforts. They come in all kinds of ways. I was reading “Our Daily Bread” Lamentations 3 talks about His mercies & faithfulness especially when we are feeling lonely in our pain. But God shows up like you said Alix in sometimes the most unexpected ways! xoxo

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