Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I have been trying to keep death out of the blog, more or less. Sister Jeremy's death slipped in, but hers was the sixth death at the monastery since August. That's been on my mind because I write the obituaries for the Sisters' magazine, Benedictine Sisters and Friends, that I'm preparing now. Also because two of the deaths happened on Saturdays, which meant I got called in to work to post the obituary and photo to the St. Cloud Times. The first time was Sister Glenore, who was 105 years old. Then it was Sister Jeremy, which felt like actual news, and I carried it around the whole weekend looking for someone to tell.

Also, Brother Dietrich Reinhardt, an incredibly gentle and kind monk who has been president of Saint John's University for 17 years, was diagnosed this fall with metastatic melanoma, stage 4, in his lungs and brain. His decline has been very rapid, and although people speak with vague hope sometimes, it is clear he won't live much longer. I found myself crying at Mass at the Abbey one morning over this. I also went to an anointing service held for him at hte Abbey church a few weeks ago. I saw it on the campus bulletin board, and had no idea what a large event it was. I thought it would be the monastic community humbly doing their little prayer service after noon prayer. But when I arrived there were choruses and many instruments, a packed house, several news reporters and cameramen. In other words, it was a university event. It was highly choreographed, with lots of actual fanfare. Select constituencies were represented up in the choir stalls-- not the brothers who sat down in the main area with the rest of us. They wore red ribbons and when the time came they paraded past Dietrich and held a hand up over him. You couldn't actually touch him because his white blood cell count was too low at that point and he risked infection. I stayed to pray, to sing, and visited with a couple monks I hadn't seen in awhile, but I didn't stay for the whole parade. I went back to work.

Then yesterday I got news that an old friend, Rocco DiSipio, died. He committed suicide, and this was not a surprise. I don't know the details, just that he died at home, and somehow that was comforting to me. He could have easily died in an institution or on the street. He'd threatened in manic times to stage a battle with Satan at the mouth of a mountain in New York State. I was glad to hear he was in Eastern Pennsylvania, in a place he loved. His physical health had become bad, I hear, and I would imagine that was also a factor. Maybe he didn't want to lose his independence. Or maybe he was just finished fighting his demons.

I knew Rocco when we both lived in Chicago in the mid-90s. He was the brother of a friend of a friend. At a party, he zeroed in on me quite intensely. We spent the next few months talking about writing mostly. Rocco had written seven unpublished novels, stuff along the lines of Confederacy of Dunces. He had elaborate correspondences with Margaret Atwood, who advocated for his writing to her publisher and agent, and with Anne Tyler. Eventually he wrote a novel that was published in serial form online, a satire. It was a good format for him--keep it moving, keep it archly comic. I heard him on WBEZ one day in the late '90s talking about the death of the conventional novel and predicting that soon all publishing would be online. My first husband heard the interview and said, "Wow, Rocco is real." I had a lot of Rocco stories by then, but not many of my friends ever met him.

Rocco had been a police officer and then a parole officer, and married, before he had his first manic depressive episode in his late twenties. In the intervening years he'd been homeless, attempted suicide twice, and been in and out of hospitals. He was brilliant, and knew how to work over psychiatrists to get the medication he decided he needed. When I met him he was living in a spare room in someone's apartment, and instead of rent he was painting furniture for the guy. He'd coat it in black paint and then use paint pens to cover the piece in images from his wild imagination. One of this favorites was a straight-backed chair with three nuns on the back looking longingly down at a hotdog on the seat. That was Rocco's sense of humor, completely. He talked me through the writing of a novel, multiple drafts, which he believed in utterly-- much more than I did. I sent it out to agents, got interest from two, but was relieved when they decided in the end they couldn't sell it. I never would have finished it, however, if it weren't for Rocco. Because of him I wrote something that was completely invented, real fiction, and felt as real as the world I inhabited every day. I even got a chance one summer to take him to a place in Michigan where some of the novel was set, and he took the place in exactly as I'd hoped, saying, "What a site. This place. What a world." Like he could see my made-up people and their lives playing out there just like I'd written them. I can't really express how valuable that is still.

One Superbowl Sunday he took me out shooting. He thought it would be a kind of therapy for me--empowering. He didn't want me to be a victim. He picked me up and we drove out to the western suburbs of Chicago where there was a shooting range. On the way out he gave me the gun safety lecture. "The gun is always loaded. Repeat what I just said."
"Always act like the gun is loaded."
"NO! That's not what I said! The Gun IS ALWAYS Loaded. Repeat it."

When we were nearly there we left the highway and stopped at a K-Mart to buy bullets. The gun was a .22 shotgun made mostly of plastic. At the sporting goods counter a meek suburban man who seemed more comfortable selling basketballs than bullets came and asked us what we wanted. "What do you have in the way of .22 shells?" Rocco asked. The man showed him the selection, two kinds. Rocco picked up the boxes and his hand shook from the Lithium, rattling the shells. The meek man looked at Rocco, looked at me, looked back at Rocco.

"These will work," said Rocco, sliding out his permit. I didn't really understand how he managed to keep a weapons permit with his diagnosis. Also, he really did look like a serial killer in the picture-- large dark eyes, sullen face, ragged beard. Rocco chain smoked and never looked healthy. Ravaged is a word you could use.

That's when the clerk opened up. "Where are you going?"
"Just to the range up the street," Rocco said.
"Well, you know, if you want some real action, you should get a .44 and go shoot skeet out at the Drive."
"Oh, uh huh."
"A .22 isn't going to be any fun. A .44 is what you need to have some real fun." I'm not sure if he actually said "real fun" or if I got that from the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Real Man is Hard to Find." But the clerk was quickly becoming that kind of character. Sylvio took his change, and we turned to walk down the aisle.
"That guy was crazy," Rocco said, laughing. I couldn't help but agree and join him.

At the shooting range, we lined up to buy our target sheets. Rocco pointed and told the guy to give us "one wife," "one husband," and "one of those married couples." The guys behind us in line laughed. The targets were of a man assailant with a gun, a woman assailant with a gun, and a man holding a woman hostage. "You can shoot the husbands and I'll shoot the wives," he said on the way back to our booth.

In the end I couldn't shoot any of the people. I found a bullseye target on the floor and used that. It had a few big holes in it already, probably from a .44. Or one of the much larger guns the men in the adjacent booths were firing. They had fire coming out of the end of their guns. We had a plastic .22 that seemed more like a shooting gallery toy. But I learned how to site the thing and managed to completely punch out the center of the bullseye. For years I used it to "decorate" the peep holes on apartment doors, kind of like a wreath.

When I got married the first time in 1998, I told Sylvio over the phone. He said, "Congratulations! It's really good you're getting one under your belt." I said, "Rocco, I think this is going to work out." He laughed, quite genuinely, and said, "Oh, Sink, it never works out."

Rocco was not all darkness, but he was very dark. It was exciting, and felt very real. I took the late night calls and we talked. He could talk for hours, and so could I. He could draw worlds with his words, and he had lived several lives, all of them fascinating. I had permission to be and say whatever I wanted to with him. I think that was the real attraction. But I met my first husband, and then we moved, then he moved, and I stopped hearing from him. At some point he asked me to be his literary executor. I said sure, and carefully put the manuscripts he sent me in files in a drawer of my file cabinet. Then I started to receive daily pages and instructions in the mail. "Please replace page 143 in book 3 with this new page 143. Confirm." Or more briefly, to change the wording of a particular sentence on a page in one of the short stories. I was supposed to write him a postcard back saying I'd done what he asked. This went on awhile. I always made the changes he asked, but I didn't always write and confirm. And this was not acceptable. After a few threatening cards about how I was torturing him, he asked for all the materials back. He'd found a new executor. That was ok with me.

I didn't hear from him after that. I knew he'd moved to New York state for awhile, and then back to Western Pennsylvania. Among the papers I'd been entrusted with when I was his literary executor was a copy of his will. In it he had instructions about women he'd been involved with and who he felt had disappointed him. They were each supposed to get a particular page, or a few pages, from one of his novels in the event of his death. I wondered if I was on that list. I still do, actually, wonder if someday I'll get a page in the mail. I've thought of that on and off over the years and hoped that the fact I didn't get one meant he was still alive.

I got an e-mail from the friend of a friend of his brother about his death. It was a notice of a death in a line of deaths this fall. It was both expected and unexpected. I thought briefly that I should add his name to the Book of Remembrance the Sisters keep for the month of November and pray from-- but it was December 1. That seemed like an irony Rocco would appreciate. I prayed for him anyway.


Anonymous said...

Found out about Rocco's death a few minutes ago and googled for more info. I knew him in the early 80s, and kept up for a number of years. Thanks for the post.

Amanda said...

Rocco was a gentle and compassionate soul, and it's sad that his illness dominated his life to such an extent. It's a great loss. Bye, Rocco. We'll miss you.

Susan Sink said...

OK. I don't want to remove the page-- more than 75 people have viewed this page in the last week, and I do feel it is meeting a certain need for people who knew Rocco and want to remember him. And simply removing it and re-posting it without his name, i.e., making it impossible for people to find it who are looking for writing about Rocco, doesn't really meet my purposes either. I'm going to hope that my entry is life-giving and celebrates his life. My life is really more rich for having known him. I'm leaving the name in the title and will publish all comments.

Anonymous said...

i was a friend of rocco for about 2 summers before he did what he did. he was brilliant, if a bit off at times. we met at a flea market, and my dad ended up becoming very good friends with him. he was a good friend, and an irreplaceable one.


Kathy Jordan said...

I just belatedly learned about Rocco's death last fall. We were friends in college. He was best man at my wedding to my first husband and his friend Michael. I last saw him around 1990, when he spent about a week with me in Boston. He was not in good shape and wouldn't tell me where he was going next. I tried to track him down for years, but there seem to be a lot of Rocco Disipios in the world who were not him. And his family had all seemed to be gone from the neighborhood where he grew up. I'm so glad he knew you. Thank you for sharing his story.

Kathy J

Susan Sink said...

Thanks for posting your comment, Kathy.

Anonymous said...

I just learned of Rocco's death through this blog. I woke up a few mornings ago and wondered about him. So I figured I'd Google him to see if I could find anything. I was certainly saddened by the news, though, just like you, was not surprised.

I lived with Rocco for several years in south-central PA earlier this decade. He and I both rented the two spare bedrooms in a guy's house, the three of us living together - it was an interesting mix, to say the least. He and I differed greatly about many things, but he was always genuine and up for a good discussion. He will be missed.

laurie said...

oh. so sad. and not surprising. but horrible anyway. rocco lived on the sofa in my living room for a year or two in the eighties, I guess. i was in fifth and sixth grade and he was friends with my mom. and then friends with my sister and me. what a great great part of our lives. wrote songs about us. he read to us from his plays. he talked to us like we were grown up, like we could handle anything (our father had died a few years before -- and rocco got that about us, that it made us different from other kids). but, he also appreciated that i was a kid, that i needed fun and kid stuff, and he was goofy and funny. i feel so lucky to have known him. and so sad i didn't ever talk to him as a grown up. what a loss.

Susan Sink said...

I continue to be moved by the ongoing comments to this post. Thank you to everyone for sharing your own memories of how Rocco touched your lives. He definitely traveled widely and lived deeply and touched so many people.