September 2, 2016 was the day my teammates and I have been waiting for almost ten months; opening day of our official volleyball season at Gettysburg College. Climbing onto the bus each weekend is always climactic; we are chanting, high-fiving each other, and of course, figuring out how to keep ourselves occupied on the trip. After managing to turn my seat into a cot, I waited for our captains to lead the count-off to make sure that we were all on the bus and ready to go. Everyone was there; we were all excited, and we began our journey to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The drive started with us catching up with each other, reflecting on our week, the classes we had, and of course, all of the assignments we already had due. After all, school was coming into full swing.
It is tradition for Coach Turco to give the team some words of encouragement at the beginning of a traveling weekend. It’s normally connected to the theme of that week; hustle, relentless pursuit, commitment, the list can go on and on. But this time, Coach stood up and announced a “social experiment,” which consisted of all of us passing in our cell phones for entire the bus ride, so as to be present with one another. In all honestly, my initial reaction was to laugh, because during practice each week, Coach would encourage us to step outside of our comfort zones and to get involved in something outside of volleyball. It included, but was not limited to volunteering, learning about a sorority or fraternity’s philanthropy, or learning about the grey area in something we believed to be black or white. So naturally, I thought this “social experiment” was one of those challenges. However, I trusted Coach and the process and proceeded to pass in my phone.
I sat up and showed Nicole, my best friend and roommate, the messages I received, and began interrogating her to see if she knew anything that I didn’t. Through tears and a drum in my head beating to the sound of my heart, I walked up to the front of the bus and told Coach I needed to call my mom. Without hesitation, Coach let me call her- she didn’t pick up, and I remember consistently re-dialing her number. It truly felt like I was thrown onto a rollercoaster, stuck on this ride with no way off. Finally, after a few unanswered phone calls, I stopped and was still.
During my stillness, I looked up and saw a 70 MPH speed limit sign. I couldn’t tell you why, but I looked over at Coach and made a joke about being able to go 70 MPH on I-70. It was in that moment that I realized that we were actually on I-70- not too far from my home in Carroll County, Maryland. It was as though I wanted to dash home, but at the same time, I wanted to run as far from home as possible; I’ve never felt anything like it before or since.
I was terrified, but with Michelle and Coach Turco standing right beside me, I knew I was safe. My phone vibrating snapped me out of my daze, and I saw it was my mom calling me back. You would think that I would jump to answer it, but I continued to stare at her name on my phone, debating even if I wanted to answer and come to terms with what was on the other end of the line- a new reality of some sort.
Believe it or not, the phone call was simple. She told me how much she loved me, and begged me to trust her. I was given clear instructions to give all of my electronics to Coach, and that she would see me in an hour and a half. I felt my inner being wanting to consistently beg her for any words that would comfort me, not caring if they were the truth or not. But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of that; I agreed and promised her that I would do as she had asked.
After talking with my mom, I was at a loss, I had no idea what to do with myself. I didn’t want to pry for answers with Coach, so I got up to return back to my seat. At this point, I felt like I was a just a body in survival mode, just floating through this point in time. But when I turned around, I saw my teammates praying together. Heads down, praying, for me. I can only guess that Nicole informed my teammates about messages that I received and that things were not looking good at home. They didn’t know who they were praying for and they didn’t even know why they were doing it, but they did it And then, when they saw me, they asked to pray with me for comfort and wisdom.
Once we arrived in Gettysburg, I distinctly remember feeling numb. I saw my mom standing at the bottom of the bus waiting for me. When I hopped off the bus, I left my stuff on my seat to see if Coach would tell me to grab it- my thought was that if Coach told me to grab it, then it was bad news, and if Coach didn’t tell me to grab my belongings, then the news couldn’t possibly be too terrible, and I would be returning to be with the team that afternoon.
“Hey Gab, why don’t you grab your bags.”
As I was stepping off the bus, I had tunnel vision for only my mom. I went directly to her and she led me to an isolated part of the college. When we turned the corner, I saw my brother standing there. He quickly embraced me and told me that our father had unexpectedly passed away early that morning. In a matter of seconds, my life was shattered.
I’m going to fast forward to the next day when I met the team at the tournament to tell them the news about my dad. We were all sitting outside after the tournament had finished. When I told them the news, I saw so much pain in their eyes- this was ugly cry central. But ironically, that moment was probably one of my favorites throughout this whole experience, and that was because we were all together for a reason outside of volleyball- and that was family. I remember when I came for my recruit visit, and Coach Turco asked me what I wanted most in a team and, when I told him that it was “a family,” Coach just nodded and smiled because he knew I had nothing to worry about. The community that Coach Turco has built is nothing like I have ever experienced before. In that moment, my teammates not only assured me that they will do anything in their power to lessen the impact of this tragedy, but they showed me that they were with me for the long haul. To know that I had a family of twenty-plus people behind me through the next season of life helped me manage each event; saying goodbye to my dad, writing an obituary, writing a eulogy, gathering pictures for the funeral, grieving and so much more.
As I was stumbling through this seemingly paralyzing season, I found myself questioning God and forgot what His love felt and looked like. I was so unbelievably lucky to be surrounded by a group of people who reminded me what selfless love is about, which in turn, it reminded me that I have a loving and personal God who will prove to be faithful. That selfless love that I mentioned, it looked like all of us crammed into a hotel room, allowing me to share my heart, including the parts that were consumed of grief. It looked like some of my teammates sitting on the bathroom sink, talking to me while I was in the shower because I didn’t want to be alone. It looked like random letters, notes and messages of encouragement throughout my semester to remind me how deeply I am loved and cared for.
These selfless acts were humbling, to say the least, because I didn’t feel like I deserved that relentless pursuit of love. In turn, it helped me feel confident that no matter what I was facing, I had someone to talk to- and I know the other girls on the team felt the same way. My team consistently met me where I was at, and let me know that it is okay to not be okay. They never gave up on me and never allowed me to give up on myself, because that’s what love does, it lights the darkest of places. Through it all at every turn, every bump in the road, every moment when it felt like my world was caving in, my teammates extended their hands and picked me up when I needed it most.
I am forever grateful for both Coach Turco and Michelle, and how they protected me on that September 2nd. They made going through an unbearable tragedy a bit better by how they have loved and supported me from that day forward. Each week, they would check in and see how the grieving process was going, and they allowed me to take time to myself during practice when I felt a wave of grief come my way. They advocated for me to my professors when I had to miss school to be home with family, and they even encouraged me to see a grief counselor to make sure I was staying as healthy as possible. I am so thankful that they showed me that in between the craziness of life, volleyball could be my escape and in no way a burden. I am so thankful to have coaches who are so intentional about creating a family in the midst of building a successful volleyball team. Coach would always tell me to take it one day at a time, because each day has trials of its own, and that I don’t have to meet other’s expectations as to where my heart or my emotions should to be. Just one day at a time. Coach Turco and Michelle constantly went above and beyond what was asked of them. Both of them became more than coaches on September 2; they became shoulders to cry on, rocks to lean on, and truthfully, they became family.
The following months after my father’s passing were dark as I battled anxiety, depression and even began to question my own self-worth. However, I truly believe that without having my teammates by my side throughout that year, I wouldn’t have been able to climb my way out of the depths of mourning and grief, finish my volleyball career, and graduate from SU in four years with my nursing degree. My volleyball family never let me lose track of who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to be. Now, I am able to walk in victory on the other side of this tragedy and make it a point to be present with people when I’m around them because of what my teammates did for me. I learned the importance of meeting others where they’re at, giving them grace and room to grow, and seeing them through. People grow where they are loved, and I am thankful that I was loved during this season of pain. This team is a part of my forever story.
The silver lining is that this story doesn’t end with the tragedy of my dad passing away. It’s a story of hope and restoration that will be told throughout my days, about this group of girls and coaches that kept me grounded in the hardest moments of my life. This story of love goes far beyond my father’s passing, and for that, I am grateful. I know I may be biased, but my SUVB family are made up of some of the greatest heroes and my dad would be so proud of them. They changed my life for the better and I am who I am today because of them.