Courtney and Bailey Liddle have always been close. That might be expected of sisters separated in age by just 18 months. It's just that there were times along the way when proximity wasn't so much a sign of sisterly affection as a precaution.
It seemed the closer the hold that older sister Courtney could keep on Bailey, the less damage her sister could inflict. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer and your occasionally bratty younger sister closest of all.
"When we were younger, we would be those kicking and screaming kids," Bailey said. "We would fight a lot. And when I was a lot smaller, sometimes I would just throw temper tantrums and be a little diva. And Court would have to pick me up and just hold me there while I was kicking and screaming."
Doing so these days would prove considerably more difficult for Courtney. While Virginia Tech's 5-foot-10 standout senior isn't in danger of being turned away from any roller coasters, she and rest of the Hokies look up at Bailey, now a 6-1 sophomore who grew a foot once she hit high school and quickly ceased to be anyone's little sister.
Fortunately for both, the tantrums and fights are long gone, although the two do have a knack for driving opponents to states of agitation. Courtney ranks among the top five hitters in Virginia Tech history in everything from slugging percentage, batting average and home runs to walks and RBIs, and she was recently selected in the National Pro Fastpitch draft. Primarily a pitcher as a freshman in college, Bailey broke through at the plate this season as a slugging prospect of not inconsequential potential.
Virginia Tech is better for having the two of them together on a team likely heading to the NCAA tournament, but they are at their most inseparable off the field.
That has a lot to do with the woman once charged with stopping squabbles. More than anything, Courtney and Bailey are Susan Liddle's daughters. It turns out nothing, not even cancer at its most insidious, is stronger than that.
"She's a very strong woman," Courtney said of her mother. "She just raised us to be kind of self-sufficient and tough and hard workers, but to really love each other. As a kid, you don't really appreciate that, but now, especially being a little bit older, being separated from her at college and seeing her fight through breast cancer, I've just seen so much more how she's a woman who is confident in who she is."
Susan was one of the first softball coaches Courtney ever had. The daughter of a dairy farmer used to hard work and early mornings, she coached with a no-nonsense sensibility. If someone on the team didn't get a bunt down, the whole team ran. If people didn't focus in practice, the whole team ran. Other parents grumbled, but as the years went by, Courtney said she noticed a lot of those teammates stuck with the sport longer than their peers.
"She was the toughest coach in the whole little league," Courtney said.
So it was hardly out of character for their mom when the kids saw her treat a bout with breast cancer as more of a chore than a crisis. That was in 1998. At the time, Courtney knew her mom was sick and understood she had to go to the hospital. That was about the extent of it. The treatment went well, her mom came home, and the family that included Courtney and Bailey's older brother and father got back to its normal routine. They never talked much about cancer.
Normal lasted until the fall of 2009. Susan picked up Courtney, then a freshman at Virginia Tech, for a weekend at home. Some way through the nearly four-hour drive from Blacksburg, Susan's phone rang. It was the hesitancy Courtney heard in her mom's voice that gave it away, her evident worry so foreign. The cancer had returned. Her mom hadn't even let on that she had gone in for tests on a mass she had felt in her chest.
"Instantly, I'm super emotional and I just started bawling," Courtney said. "My mom, no tear was shed. She just sat there and rubbed my back and told me that it was going to be OK, that we'd get through it as a family."
All of this came as the sisters were apart for the first time in their lives, Courtney in college and Bailey a junior in high school in Haymarket, Va., outside of Washington, D.C. Bailey, who had battled through a typically tempestuous teenage relationship with her mom to that point, now found herself home alone with Susan in the weeks after the diagnosis. The two would arrive home well before Bailey's dad and sit and talk, sometimes about Susan's treatment, sometimes about softball or Bailey's friends or nothing much at all. At night, the sisters would talk, the subject matters of proms, at-bats and school less important than the voice at the other end.
"I often feel really bad for B because she was there to see my mom go through chemo and lose her hair and get sick," Courtney said. "When she needed someone to talk to about that, I was definitely there to listen. But she was incredibly strong too. I look back, and I just don't know how she handled that with as much strength as she did."
There aren't any answers about what comes next. Susan's fight grows more daunting. There isn't going to be a cure for stage IV cancer as advanced as Susan's, just the hope that chemotherapy and hormone treatments can continue to hold it off for some amount of time. Courtney said they hope every day for 10 or 20 more years, and perhaps that contrast is the best explanation there is. That the future is something you hope for while you live every day.
To that end, Susan was there for Courtney's senior day, just as she is there for almost every game. For those hours, things are as they ever were for the entire family.
"I don't know if escape is the right word, but I can just step on the field and focus on mechanics and fundamentals and being there for the girls and cheering, and all that other stuff just goes out the window," Courtney said. "That's what my parents want too. That's why they come to all the games, and we can enjoy them together. I think we can all just kind of get away from everything and be at a softball game, which is something that has been so stable for our whole life. Softball has always been a huge part of our family, and that hasn't changed, even with my mom's illness."
Asked what of her mother she sees in her older sister, Bailey chuckled ever so slightly and came up with her sister's inclination toward strong-willed opinions. Courtney graduated with a degree in communications in three and a half years. She would like to pursue a career course that would allow her to work with student-athletes, perhaps as an adviser or a coach. Most of all, she wants to be a mother like her mother.
For now, both Bailey and Courtney just want more time as daughters.
"Sometimes I catch myself thinking about stuff that I shouldn't be," Bailey said. "I catch myself thinking about whether my mom's going to be there for the rest of my college career, if she's going to be there for my senior night. I catch myself thinking about if she's going to be there when I get married, if she's going to be there to help see my kids grow up, stuff like that.
"And then I'm just like, 'Bailey, why are you thinking about that stuff? Live in the present. Be able to enjoy the time you have with her.'"
And know there is at least one other person out there who understands exactly what she means.