I was standing in Gabrielle’s dorm room desperately folding t-shirts. It seemed, at the moment, that my life depended on this growing stack, so I pulled 100 percent cotton from a suitcase and I folded. T-shirts advocating coffee consumption. Ones promoting unicorns. Ones boasting Sherlock Holmes. Ones with stripes. Ones with watermelons.
All in a stack.
One after another.
I folded and, buddy, I folded.
If that stack were neat and pristine, then I would stay neat and pristine.
Surrounding me were Gabrielle, her dad William, her mom Lisa and her stepdad Doug. All of us were in various states of coping. Doug was in charge of hauling: hauling up a TV, hauling down cardboard. William was in charge of getting coffee. Lisa was in charge of taking pictures and suggesting cosmetic placement.
All of us exchanged nearly convincing small talk. The room would cool down at night, we said. She needed lightbulbs, we said. It was nice her desk was by a window, we said. The bed looked pretty soft. What nice throw pillows she’d chosen. What a lot of cupboard space she had.
You could practically hear us all just trying to hold on.
I had known Gabrielle’s move-in day to college was going to be tough, but I hadn’t been able to predict how it would unfold exactly. It turns out, it was full of surprises.
For example, I had no idea the Ukrainian in me would surface and I would start viciously organizing underwear. At one point, Gabrielle suggested I maybe didn’t have to fold her panties.
“I do,” I responded. “Oh yes. I do.”
I also hadn’t predicted that the college would run move-in day like a well-oiled machine. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a pack of Case Western students rolling giant cardboard boxes they’d affixed to trolleys. They rolled up to the trunks of our cars and started packing all of Gabrielle’s belongings into the box. I went to park the car, and by the time we all reached room 216, Gabrielle’s luggage and totes were already there waiting for her.
In the meantime, I’d noticed there were students directing parents, handing out water, offering maps. I hadn’t anticipated this degree of support. It was the girl holding the poster advertising free hugs that nearly made me burst into tears. I nearly lost it again when I reconnected with William and Gabrielle and saw my husband was now proudly wearing a button pin that said, “CWRU Dad.”
I also never expected that I’d have lunch at a place called Potbelly Sandwiches. After we finished setting up her room, we ambled listlessly searching for a place to eat. The day felt too sunny and uptown Cleveland felt foreign, possibly even virtual, filled with chains and students. I was hungry yet not hungry, like you feel when you’re about to take an exam or go to a funeral.
Somehow, though, I found myself eating a sandwich and dill pickle chips. I ate every last bite and spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on chewing and not making eye contact. I had one near slip when I told Gabrielle she should pick up every free t-shirt she could find that week, as I’d noticed she’d forgotten to pack her pajama shirts. Thinking of all the years she’d worn those pilled, old shirts, most of which had been collected from running 5Ks over the past decade, made me have to swallow hard.
When we got back to room 216, I hadn’t planned to love Gabrielle’s roommate’s parents so instantly. They seemed like the perfect, wholesome Midwestern couple — her dad was even wearing jean shorts — and their daughter seemed sweet and well brought up. I wanted to hug the mom a bit, just as Gabrielle turned to us a final time.
I suggested we head outside so we did and right there, on a grassy patch in front of Pierce Hall, I had my final surprise. William hugged his daughter with such force then, biting down a sob over her shoulder, that my eyes filled with tears. But when Gabrielle turned to me, I was suddenly strong and whole. I told her I loved her and, by god, I do. I told her we were proud and, by god, we are.
And then we walked to the car and we left.