Learning to Drive a Stick and Other Life Lessons:

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be just like my sister Anne. She’s that combination of classic and cool. I have often likened her to Princess Diana when describing her to people. That’s how I see her.  I have been asked to share our story but there are so many to share and this one with cancer is more than the sum of us. So if you will indulge me, let me just share a few things I have learned from my time with Anne:

(Note to Anne- please forgive story number one– I am doing this chronologically)

  • When I was a little girl and my parents traveled overseas she exposed me to my first high school party. I was so freaked out! I wouldn’t have had the courage to have a party at the house, not then and not in my teenage years. It was the kind of party you would see in movies, complete with broken furniture, drunken teenagers, soap-filled pool and mini-dramas. The party came and went and none were too worse for the wear except Anne.

Lesson Number One: When you are hiding the evidence, hide it all. She forgot the bag of empty beer cans in the trash on the side of the house. Sure way to get busted by mom and dad.

  • My sister got her first car when I was just in grade school. It was a yellow TR-7 my parents painted white. It had  fuzzy sheepskin seats (and I can still remember how they feel). I thought it was the coolest thing ever. She never hesitated to take me for a ride. Most teenagers don’t want their little sister tagging along. It made me feel important. When Anne came back from THE Ohio State to visit us at home in California for the first time I remember being really excited to see her. I was the only other girl at home with 3 brothers so having her back was always a good thing! She came around the corner into the family room wearing jeans, an Ohio State sweatshirt and these brown loafers–I know, sounds like a real fashion plate right? All I remember thinking was how collegiate she looked and how cool I thought that was. I was fixated on the shoes though. It wasn’t long before I was out scouting for the same pair with Anne and mom in tow.

Lesson Number Two: Always be kind to little kids, it makes an impression even in the smallest of tasks.

  • When I was 17 and learning to drive Anne had a white Honda Civic stick shift. She was 24 at the time and we were then living in Columbus, Ohio. She took me out one afternoon to teach me to drive her car. It will never translate well in this story but anytime I tried to shift from 1st to 2nd gear the car would begin to jerk back and forth, back and forth sending us flying forward and then flying back, forward then back. About the 3rd time this happened we couldn’t stop laughing. It was the kind of hard laughter in which you can’t speak and if you’re lucky you won’t pee. Well–laughter like that makes it hard for the 24 year-old to explain to the 17-year old how to get out of the rock and shake maneuver. Eventually we did, I learned to drive but I think I left the transmission all along Muirfield Drive.

Lesson Number Three: When life gets rocky, laugh hard and push though.

  • Anne didn’t always have the best of luck with her health. In fact in her twenties and thirties she had such severe endometriosis, there was uncertainty as to her ability to have a baby. I remember quite vividly walking with Anne through a parking garage as we were going to see our brother Billy’s newborn baby girl Emily. I jokingly asked Anne when she and Mike were going to get started. It was then I learned they had been trying and had been for a long time. I remember thinking how tough it must have been to go into that hospital- maybe it wasn’t- but that was my thought at the time. Anne didn’t flinch. She was loving and supportive as always.

Lesson Number Four: Celebrate the happiness of others and carry yourself with grace even in times of doubt. (I’m happy to say Anne and Mike now have three incredible children.)

  • As a young adult, I went through some tough years not really sure of who I was and where I was going. After a particularly rough period, my sister called me up and suggested I move up to Washington D.C. with her for awhile. You might be thinking…no big deal? Well, she was 6 months into her marriage and living in a one bedroom apartment…but I needed help and they didn’t hesitate. That time was pivotal in making me who I am today. For 6 months, I slept on their couch bed in their living room while they allowed me to find my way.

Lesson Number Five: Be generous. You never know when your act of kindness will save a life.

  • When I was 25, I was struggling with a career decision. I was working with family in the television business. It was a great experience but I wanted to do more. My sister was an Executive Producer working for the CBS News affiliate in Washington D.C.  I called her up and we talked about an opening at the NBC station in Columbus where I was living. She told me about the job and encouraged me to apply. It was that conversation with her that made me believe I could do it. When I interviewed, it turned out that the Executive Producer there had been mentored by Anne. When I identified myself as Anne’s sister, she said, “Well if you’re Anne’s sister, you get it—that’s all I need to know.” I remember thinking how cool it was that someone would say that and what a testament to my sister.  Since then, I have been lucky to have a very successful career in this demanding field. I now am an Executive Producer at the world’s news leader, CNN. I can say unequivocally: This would not have happened without my big sister.

Lesson Number Six: Share your life lessons when you can, don’t be afraid to give advice and always encourage the dreams of others. You never know when your act of wisdom will change a life.

  • In 2004, I went through a pretty devastating break-up, the kind where you are not sure how you are going to make it from one day to the next. I needed to do something.  I had never been to Paris but somehow knew it would be my favorite city in the world. I decided to save some money and plan a trip even if I was going alone. Because my sister is just a bit awesome she managed to talk her husband into letting her out of wife and mom duty for a week and come with me to Paris. It was a week filled with massive carb fests, plenty o’wine, strange men resembling Neil Diamond crossed with Mr. Bean (some stories are best kept in the vault), shopping, all-nighters and laughter. Lots of laughter.

Lesson Number Seven: Broken hearts can be survived and travel is better with a sister.

  • Cancer.

I had just finished spending the holidays with my sister and her children in my home in Atlanta. She had to leave early to go home to Milwaukee to watch the Rose Bowl in Wisconsin. (Her husband is an alum!). The next day she had a routine doctor’s appointment that included her mammogram.  I didn’t know all this until over a month later when she called me one night and was a bit more serious than she is in our normal conversations. She made a point of telling me she needed me to stop watching TV and really focus. So I did. She was calm and direct and she said, “I have some news and I’m just going to say it—I have breast cancer”.

Stage One. Triple Positive.

By the time she had called me, she had already been through quite a bit. The mammogram showed nothing but a very alert tech spotted something that just didn’t seem right. So Anne, being Anne, didn’t tell any of us until she knew the diagnosis. I can’t imagine how scary those days were and I know how scary the days that followed were. Two lumpectomies followed by an eventual mastectomy and now in chemo. My sister is half way through her chemo as I write. There have been a few road bumps but for the most part It is going well and doctors expect a full recovery. She is handling all of this in the way I have seen her handle her life- with grace, class, love and sometimes what I think may be most important: a sense of humor. I invite you to visit my sister’s caring bridge site. She tells her story there on days when she feels up to it. http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/annebrown

One more story about Anne before I go:

Anne is a beautiful woman with big brown eyes and light brown hair. She’s always had a very stylish cut. I would not describe my sister as vain at all but I do know that losing her hair was something that was bothering her. I can relate to that and I think most people can. So as that time was approaching I know Anne was worried, not only about her head but more about her kids and how scary that could be.  The morning she began to lose her hair, she called her closest friends over to the house. With her husband and three children and those friends by her side, they took turns cutting, then shaving her head. Anne had been planning this little gathering because she didn’t want to worry her children and thought if she turned it into something fun…they would be ok. They are. And the bonus? So was Anne.

Lesson Number Eight: When you’re feeling anxious, worry is getting you down, boobs are sagging and shit’s falling out on you—call up the ones you love, chill the beer and throw a party.


Author Note: I was going through some old jump drives this week and came across this piece you just read. I wrote it a few years back. I’m happy to report that my sister is 7 years cancer free. True to her nature, Anne is now helping all of us as our mom takes on cancer. Given all of us do not fall far from the tree… there is no doubt mom will be equally victorious.

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