PURCELLVILLE, Va. — On a gray Friday afternoon outside a courthouse here, a sign as large as a small town read: “Home of Anne Richards Arbery. Va. 1942-1990. Virginia Teacher and Breast Cancer Survivor. Her sister is now suffering the same disease. Please donate to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”
That’s Anne Richards Arbery. A beautiful woman with caramel skin and beaming blue eyes who mentored many in the local high school, she didn’t have much in common with Caroline Pickett, the small woman next to her, who rose from grocery clerk to state legislator and was the early front-runner in the Democratic primary here. But the two women – who found out in mid-December that they had breast cancer – were united by their awareness of the disease, which struck both at unexpectedly young ages.
The next morning, of course, Caroline Pickett succumbed.
Three days later, Anne Richards Arbery, meanwhile, underwent a double mastectomy at a hospital in Roanoke and had just enough time to get her nails done before leaving for a New York hospital to undergo chemotherapy. Three days after that, she died.
“Anne had long set the example for me to get her nails done every Thursday morning when she wasn’t feeling well, and then I would go cry in the bathroom and cry, and then she would tell me to put some more makeup on,” recalled her sister Laurie Arbery, a former sheriff’s deputy in Howard County who remembers her sister as an easy-going person who loved baseball and didn’t have a mean bone in her body.
“She was just the very best of us all,” she said.
While Laurie Arbery said she is angry, she also sees meaning and purpose in her sister’s death. The young women raised in the 1980s and ’90s had fashioned an unusual bond and her niece and nephews are all doing their best to carry it on.
“I think the least I can do is to pass on the examples of dignity that Anne set, and hope that other women come and know that it’s OK to choose life and make that choice,” she said.
“I have a pile of thousands of prayer cards. There were people from around the nation that came to her funeral and prayed with her family,” said Laurie Arbery, noting that they came in the days after her mother died of breast cancer.
“God had a way of keeping Anne going,” she said. “She was like a mother to me. You have to make that choice. You cannot go,” she said, struggling to make the last word in the traditional manner. “Just make the choice,” she said.