Friday, May 29, 2015

Pop Rockett - A Tribute

"chocolate cake honey, with a side of kisses!"
Heartbreak doesn’t even begin to explain.

Our dear friend, Pop, has left this Earthly realm and passed on to whatever comes next.

Through the years I have written about Pop for you…. Including how we met. I wrote about when Pop left the Keys, including we happy vegans swift visits up and back to see him after he moved. Whether you met him or not, you knew about him if you read the blog, or keep up with us on Facebook in our on line community. And, if you read about him, you probably loved him. Strike the world probably…. You loved him.

In Pop’s world anything worth doing was worth doing himself. Mattered not it might take 10 times as long at his advanced age, his work ethic was as solid as it was when he was young. Many people offered a helping hand to him for chores and such, but the typical response would be “no thank you, I want to do it myself.” Case in point, the day we met.

I was new down here and hadn’t met many (any?) neighbors, and had no friends. I was homesick, missing my family, missing my friends and everything that I knew and was comfortable with. I was also coping with frequent thoughts that I had made a huge mistake moving here. Driving down the street one morning I saw an elderly man at the edge of the road with large trash buckets full of cut up giant palm fronds. He had big trimmers with him, and was wearing a white fishing style hat. He was stooped over the buckets, drenched in sweat. It was summertime, maybe July or August, and was sweltering out. I noticed there was no one else around, he had no walker, no wheelchair nor cane, just one old man and a mission. I stopped, told him my name, that I was his new neighbor, and asked if he needed any help. Mosquitoes were all over him, but he seemed unfazed as the sweat dripped off his face. With a wry smile he said something about my “perfect timing” asking where was I an hour ago, as he was just finished. I was mortified, thinking he was serious, and I was embarrassed thinking he’s right, no person of his age should be doing the work he was doing. Next thing I knew, he busted out laughing as he saw the look of shame and horror on my face.

I had a new friend, a new friend with a wicked sense of humor.

We forged our friendship as I baked him too many muffins to count, fed him too many pancakes to count, and drove too many miles up and back over the 7 Mile Bridge with him to ever really know.

Pop was a man of devout faith, and he drew on that well through his whole life to get through some exceptionally difficult times. Don’t be fooled by his never ending smiles that he got to be 106 years on this Earth without a hefty chunk of hard times. He outlived his wife, a son, and other family members he loved dearly. He lost too many friends to count through his life. He saw the world change in ways people like me cannot imagine.

Pop and I had truthfully had more differences than similarities, not just a generation between us, but several generations. Despite all that, we connected and always found a middle ground, more often than not because of Pop’s efforts. Pop didn’t want to talk about the “old days” quite the contrary. He wanted to talk about sports, politics, religion, food, nature, and the wonderful road we lived on. Pop had a great love of sports (he was a star athlete in his younger days, and set a pole vaulting record), including basketball and football. He was involved in many sports, but never played football. Long ago, I asked why he never played football being that he loved the game so much.  His response… “Mother didn’t want me to, she said it was too dangerous.” Pop spoke so lovingly of his mother, the food she cooked, lessons she taught, and so much more. He lived by her wisdom to the day he died. He told me a few of her lessons were “eat a good breakfast to start your day right, do a puzzle every day to keep your mind fresh, exercise daily, and always say your prayers.” I can recite exactly what Pop would have for breakfast every day, tell you that he did a jumble every morning, did his leg, arm and hand exercises every single day, and prayed like no one else I’ve ever known.

Pop was as much a good student as he was a good teacher.

Most likely Pop's strong ability to be a goal setter came from his mother in one way or another. She herself lived to be 104, and Pop had a goal to make it to "at least" 104. Another checkmark crossed on Pop's life list.

After Pop had given up driving, his son gave him a golf cart so he could continue to visit friends on the street, and maintain independence in the  yard he so lovingly tended to. There were quite a few golf cart rides before a regulator was installed. Pop would go tearing off down his driveway at full throttle “PEDAL TO THE MEDAL” as he left scorched Earth behind. I was on quite a few of those scorched Earth rides before the other happy vegan thought it would be best to install that regulator. At the same time, the other happy vegan surprised Pop with a supercharged duel air horn on the cart, holy bananas was that thing loud. Pop LOVED it! He’d go riding up and down the street laying on that horn to say hello to all his friends. He also blew that horn every morning on his way out to water "his birds" at the fountain so, as he would say, we'd all know "I'm still here!" On one of our crazy rides when the cart was still supercharged with speed and horn, we happened to pass some poor soul who had stopped in an empty lot to make a phone call. Pop’s vision wasn’t the best, all he saw when we passed at full throttle with air horn constantly blaring was a raised hand in the air. Being that Pop only saw the good in people, he was certain that was a “hello” wave (it wasn’t, trust me) so he blasted the horn even more, it was truly absolutely hilarious. All this while he was rasping out “PEDAL TO THE METAL! PEDAL TO THE METAL! PEDAL TO THE METAL!!!!!!”

So. Much. Fun.

Pop and I watched some sports together, not too much as he knew I didn’t appreciate sports the same as he did, although I surely could watch a baseball game or two, especially Yankees. I learned much more about golf from Pop than I ever thought I could stand, as he was a huge golf aficionado. When he moved to the Keys, he became a member at Sombrero Country Club, continuing to continue to satisfy his long love of the game. He had several holes in one during his life as well, I think his last hole-in-one was at Sombrero at around age 92 or so. Pop had friends who are in the pro circuit, and also knew others through his friends. We’d watch more golf than anything else, as he’d tell me who he was rooting for and what the connection was for him. He also took no prisoners when they were shooting a crappy game, and felt genuine happiness for them when they played very well.

Pop and I didn’t agree on religion either, maybe I disappointed him on that but he didn’t dwell on it. Instead he gently told me that he’d pray for me anyway.  He’s the only person in my life who could get away with that. Every conversation ended with a blessing from him, along with an I love you.

Pop was my biggest food fan, and best food critic. He would try anything I ever made, so long as it was something that wasn’t too spicy or too fancy (“honey, I like my food plain.”) He had a sweet tooth as big as his smile, and would never turn down a cupcake, a muffin, or any other sweet from me. Probably the only people I’ve met in my life who had a love of chocolate greater than my own were my father, and Pop. Each time I went into research and development for a new product, he was my first taste tester. He may have liked his food simple, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know good food. His most requested items from me? “Chocolate cake honey, with a side of kisses” (especially for his birthdays), “muffins please, with extra nuts,” and “those blueberry muffins honey, yes please, they’re my favorite, they’re the best.”

On our last visit up to visit Pop a short couple months ago, I baked some cookies that were actually a recipe from his mother. Pop and I talked about food a lot through the years. Before he left he told me I could have any recipe I wanted out of his recipe box. I sorted through them all, some in his own careful lettering, some in his beloved wife’s hand, and others written by people I didn’t know. I took the recipes I wanted, but left those that had personal notes I thought his family would enjoy reading and left the ones I really could not veganize.  Once, after I had all the recipes, we were talking about them. I mentioned his ginger cookie recipe, saying it looked like a really great recipe. He said “that’s a good one honey, a really good one.” After he moved, I veganized that “good one.” They came out absolutely perfect on the first try. I packed them up and took them on a plane with me for our visit. Also in my bag with the ginger cookies were all the components for a tiny birthday cake I was going to present to him on the same visit. I wrote about that visit on this blog, not realizing it was the last time I would ever see Pop face to face, yet acutely aware odds were not in our favor for many (any?) visits after that. I will never forget the look on his face as he bit into that first ginger cookie, he was so happy. He said something along the lines of “perfect honey, just like I remember from mother.” He and his son reminisced about mother over more ginger cookies while I snuck into Pop’s new kitchen and assembled the tiny chocolate birthday cake. It was a couple weeks shy of his real 106th birthday, but it didn’t matter. I had made my best chocolate cake, my best chocolate ganache, my best chocolate frosting then packed everything with a sleeve of bright rainbow sprinkles. I had carefully wrapped and packed special “#106” candles to top the cake. I lovingly filled, frosted and decorated that cake in his shiny new kitchen, silently wondering if I would be given the privilege of preparing a #107 cake, hoping desperately that so it would be. When I finished the cake, I lit the candles, and marched into his dining room where he, his son, a few other close family, and the other happy vegan were. We sang happy birthday, hugged, and snapped a few pictures before Pop got down to business of sawing through cake, ganache and frosting. Those are the last pictures Pop and I took together.

Pop went through a lot, and although he would be frustrated by the limitations his 106 year old body would sometimes have, he always kept his game face on. He wanted to keep doing everything himself, but bodies simply sometimes do not cooperate when we get to a certain age. So, we went from shopping outings together, to me doing shopping. We went from me taking him for haircuts, to haircuts being done at home, or someone physically stronger than me taking him out, just in case he needed more help than I could give. Through the years there were other changes too, but two things that never changed were our visits, and Pop’s golf games.

About those golf games.

Pop had a second family within the Sombrero Country Club. Even after he gave up the game in his 90s, he still continued to run the twice weekly “Pop’s group” games for the other players. He did this without a calculator. This was no small task, at times those groups had upwards of 60 players. His clipboard…. well, let’s just say it was tattered and had A LOT of ink stains. The players and the members at the club looked out for Pop. They helped him around if he needed it, while those games and those people gave him something to look forward to every Tuesday and Thursday. Games got him out of the house, and got him to spend time with those dear friends of his. He’d sit on his cart out on the course on hole #8 and needle the players. They’d give him food to take home, and stories to tell me on the ride back. He loved them, and they loved him right back.

Pop was a proud man who loved his family, his country, his community, and his friends. He loved the Florida Keys, and loved where he lived. Pop would wait for me in his dining room chair so he could wave at me as I passed by on my runs. I’d see his silhouette in the window. Sometimes I’d dash up his driveway for a quick visit on the way up or back. Pop was always still waiting at that same table, in his chair, to wave at me through his giant picture window as I passed his house on the way back home. Sometimes I’d do ridiculous things like a spazzy roadside dance, silly fake Irish jigs, blow kisses from the street, or run up to that giant window of his and holler through the glass “thanks for waiting, I love you!” before I dashed backwards down his driveway, waving the entire time until we were out of each other’s sight.

So now Pop is gone. Over the last few days I have been thinking about a lot of different things connected with Pop. I’ve been thinking about the wisdom he imparted, lessons he taught me without me even realizing school was in session. I know people seek to find themselves. Too many think they cannot do this without going to some exotic country, without climbing a mountain across the world, or without paying bundles of money to hear someone else explain to them how they too can “find themselves.” I will have none of that for myself, my own guru was 4 doors down, sat on a golf cart that happened to have a supercharged air horn, and savored every day like no one else I know. Pop had the wisdom of the ancients which he dished out with the simplicity of the Amish. He truly was the wisest person I have ever met. Pop could get people who had NOTHING in common to laugh together, and have a mutual respect. Pop built roads for people like no one else. He would not dwell on people’s missteps, he would not dwell on negativity. He believed in the inherent good of all humanity, all people, and he believed that the power of love could conquer anything.

Our world has lost a very special human being, one of great love, great forgiveness, great kindness, and great empathy. Pop had great concern for those dealing with hunger, and was very generous with his time and raised money at the golf club tournaments, which he always donated to the food bank. He would donate to the missions in Miami as well. He was a man of modest means, but he found a way to make things better for so many people in dire straits.

Shortly before Pop died, both of us happy vegans had a conversation with Pop, a goodbye conversation. He knew, and we knew, the purpose of that call. It’s something in all my years I never had to do before. He counseled me to not be sad, we said what we wanted to say, and then within what seemed like either seconds or forever, the talk was over.

On the day Pop died, we happy vegans spoke with him. He wasn’t able to talk back, but his son held that phone up to his ear so he could hear us as we again told him how much we loved him. The passing of Pop leaves a void in the lives of so many that will never be filled. While it is true that he lead a rich full life, we mortals are left behind without him. No chocolate crumb covered guru on the golf cart offering advice in a raspy cheerful voice, no guru savoring the smell of a fresh cup of coffee, no guru offering his famous “you rascal!” to everyone passing by.

Our deepest condolences go out to Pop’s family, and everyone who loved him. He had so many angels in his life that helped him live the life he wanted and deserved. He retained his independence for almost his entire 106 years, we should all be as fortunate. He was doted on and adored by many, including after he left the Keys. He had a beautiful last Christmas with family where he was, and was appreciated for the living legend that he was. It’s hard to imagine going forward without his larger than life presence. It’s hard to imagine a birthday of his passing without “chocolate cake honey, with a side of kisses.” It’s hard to imagine a lot of things now, but we have no choice. Pop’s simple guidance would remind me “we have to press on.”

For years I sat next to a sage who listened to my woes, celebrated my successes, and guided me through this scary, beautiful, cruel, magnificent world. He was a living reminder of what really matters, and a giant in not only what he did say, but what he didn’t say.

I have a lot to be thankful for in my life, and my friendship with Pop is at the top of that list. He became my first friend down here, and remained a stable force in my life from our very first meeting. I will be eternally grateful for that, as well as to everyone else who helped him along the way live the life he wanted, the way he wanted.

Pop was a lucky man, and the world was better with him in it.

Rest in peace great guru on the golf cart. I will never forget you.

 "To Have a Friend, Be a Friend."