Seventy-three years ago today, my mom, Becky, was born to John Rachubka (ruh-HOOP-kuh) and the former Stella “Lefty” Szwejk (shwake, rhymes with cake).
Like my Uncle Jack, who will turn 78 later this month, Mom attended St. Hedwig’s School, which was where virtually all the Polish kids in North Akron went. A small school, it housed first through third grade in one room, fourth through sixth in another and seventh and eighth in a third. One nun was in charge of each.
A smart girl who loved books, my mom skipped a grade early on, graduated from North High when she was 16 and married my dad, Victor “Skip” Noland, five days after her 19th birthday.
Nine months later, I came along. Twenty-one months after that, my sister Terri, now an award-winning teacher at Glover Elementary in Akron, was born.
My sister inherited our 5-foot-2, 110-pound mom’s patience and caring nature and our 6-1, 165-pound dad’s level-headedness. I write left-handed like Mom, drink cheap beer like Dad and love sports more than both did, which is saying something.
When we were kids, Dad worked downtown in the drapery department at O’Neil’s and later made a 45-minute commute to do a similar job for a May Co. just outside Youngstown. Mom stayed at home — except on Friday evenings, when she was a barmaid for fish fries at the Polish American Club — and later worked for the Summit County Title Bureau.
We had a normal, happy childhood and, like our parents, graduated from North. Mom and Dad insisted we do them one better, so we ventured a couple miles down the road and also earned degrees from the University of Akron.
Our parents are gone now — Dad died in 2001 — but my sister and I still think about them numerous times each day.
For me, that will be especially true today, not only because it’s my mom’s birthday, but also because it is the 25th anniversary of two events that will be forever intertwined in my life.
I’ve never forgotten those events and never will, but they came to the forefront two months ago while my Aunt Janet was out of town and I was spending time with my Uncle Jack.
We were sitting in his living room in Tallmadge watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 special, “Bad Boys.” When the documentary on Chuck Daly’s Detroit Pistons got to Game 4 of the 1989 NBA Finals, I asked my uncle if he remembered where we were that night.
He didn’t, but the moment I told him, it came back to him like it was yesterday.
The following story, originally published in The Gazette on June 21, 1989, eight days after my mother’s death and under the headline “Mom would understand,” will explain.
Mom would understand
It was your typical mid-June night at The Gazette. The high school sports season was over and not much was going on in the world of sports. So, with a lot of spare time to watch television, we eagerly awaited the start of Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Then the call came. It was about 6:30 p.m. My father was on the other end of the line. For some reason, I knew what he was going to say before he spoke. “You better come home, Rick. Your mom just died.”
As I drove to my parents’ home in North Akron, a lot of things were going through my mind. I thought of how courageously my mom had battled cancer for the last year, how my dad would cope with her death, what funeral arrangements the family had to make, who would do the readings at her memorial Mass and a lot more.
Strangely enough, mixed among all those jumbled thoughts on that 45-minute, misty-eyed ride home was this: Could the Los Angeles Lakers, without Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, prolong their series with the Detroit Pistons?
That question flew across my scrambled mind only briefly, but it was there nonetheless. At that moment, I felt really guilty. How could I be thinking about a silly basketball game when my mother had just died?
I guess it was after 7 p.m. when I arrived at my parents’ home. I walked quickly, without saying a word to my aunt, uncle or grandmother, to the room Hospice had set up for my mom in the back of the house.
She was there in bed, just like she had been when I left the house earlier in the afternoon. Only this time, she wasn’t breathing.
I had known this day was coming for several months and was as prepared as I was going to get, but the finality of it all was still a shock.
I cried like a baby, holding onto my father for support. I held my mom’s hands, my thoughts once again racing wildly. What would Christmas be like without her? Why did she have to die on her 48th birthday, five days before her 29th wedding anniversary? Was she in pain when she died, or was there that sudden moment of peace I’d like to think people experience when they know they are leaving this earth for a better place?
Then, once again, after I had left the room, I thought about that silly basketball game. In two hours, the Lakers would play the Pistons.
Soon it was 9 p.m. Brent Musburger’s voice came crackling over the airwaves. It was game time.
Never before had a game seemed so trivial, yet, at the same time, so important. Never before had a game been so difficult, yet so enjoyable to watch.
Quickly, the Lakers, my favorite team since childhood, had a 16-point lead. Even without Magic and Scott, they were dominating.
Just as quickly, the dreaded Pistons got within 10. Then six. Then two. Soon, they were ahead.
I was glued to the television set, just as I had been as a kid — when the Lakers could never beat Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, when New York’s Willis Reed limped onto the court to lead the Knicks over the Lakers in Game 7 of a championship series, when Jerry West made a shot from beyond half-court to send a game into overtime, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson teamed to help Milwaukee sweep the Baltimore Bullets, when Garfield Heard hit a miraculous, high-arching shot to send the Phoenix Suns-Boston game into overtime.
On this night, there was no story angle to ponder, no deadline to think about, no need to remain an objective observer.
There was just a grown man acting like a child, cursing Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer and praying Magic would suddenly rip off his street clothes, like Superman, and step on the court to lead the Lakers to a win.
Some 2½ hours later, it was over. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me that the Pistons had swept the Lakers. It didn’t bother me that I would never again have the pleasure of watching Abdul-Jabbar play basketball. It didn’t bother me when Thomas kissed the championship trophy in the Pistons locker room. It didn’t even bother me that I had lost a $2 bet to my dad.
Just watching that game — yelling at Dennis Rodman, wondering how long Pat Riley would let David Rivers play, hoping James Worthy could single-handedly lead the Lakers to a win, watching James Edwards heat up down the stretch, thinking about what outrageous things John Salley would say in the locker room — gave me a reason to smile and a chance to escape for a short period of time.
It’s hard to accurately describe that feeling to someone who doesn’t love sports — how you can be cussing at the refs, screaming at the Detroit players, contorting your body to help a Los Angeles shot go in and still say you’re having fun — but my mom would have understood.
She probably would have said something like, “Now Rick, don’t get so excited over a game,’’ but she would have understood.