Maybe there’s something to be learned in his story: a way not to live, and a way not to die, and how to make better choices after we’re sprung loose to resume whatever it is we call normalcy in the dawning of the post-pandemic era.
Courtesy Brad Rassler(Photo)
Maybe there’s something to be learned in his story: a way not to live, and a way not to die, and how to make better choices after we’re sprung loose to resume whatever it is we call normalcy in the dawning of the post-pandemic era.
Maybe there’s something to be learned in his story: a way not to live, and a way not to die, and how to make better choices after we’re sprung loose to resume whatever it is we call normalcy in the dawning of the post-pandemic era. (Photo: Courtesy Brad Rassler)

Leaving the Grace of This World

More than 17 years ago, a successful Michigan attorney took his life on a cherished trout stream, devastating close friends and family. Haunted by what happened, his nephew investigated and discovered tragic truths that were in plain sight all along.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the United States at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

COVID-19, wildfire smoke and hurricanes, the chaotic state of the body politic, and all the troubles in the world have me seeking shelter lately. I’ve been thinking about my Michigan uncle, and how he lived large and died too young. I’d like to tell you about him. Maybe there’s something to be learned in his story: a way not to live, and a way not to die, and how to make better choices after we’re sprung loose to resume whatever it is we call normalcy in the dawning of the post-pandemic era.

When I turned 13, on the occasion of my bar mitzvah, my Uncle Richard gave me a set of barbells and a subscription to Penthouse. He taught me how to fish for trout in Michigan rivers before I entered my teens and liked to give me philosophical tips on ways to live. “You know,” he was fond of saying, “you can never be too good-looking, too tanned, or make too much money.”

He was 31 when his second marriage failed; he swore off the institution and got a vasectomy. He would often tell my mother that my younger brother and sister and I were the children he’d never have.

He was handsome, with a square face and a straight Greek nose and a strong chin. My stepfather called him Richard the Kid, because he was always on the make and never showed signs of settling down. When my grandmother used to chide him that “there’s more to life than having fun,” he’d say she was wrong. “All there is to life is having fun, Mom.”

For most of his 58 years, he lived within ten miles of his birthplace in Pontiac’s Seneca Hills. He passed the Michigan bar exam in 1970 and then entered the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office. He went by Dick Levine, and he discovered a gift for arguing jury trials. “I’m so good, I convicted an innocent man,” he told one of his ex-wives, who asked me not to use her name.

In 1973, he switched sides and hung a shingle: “Richard Jerome Levine, Criminal Defense Attorney.” He defended a wide range of people, from drunk drivers to drug dealers to men charged with date rape. He spurned plea bargains and backroom deals. He became famous in the county court for a streak of acquittals that some say reached into the seventies. He was renowned as the organizer of the Big Ten party, an annual holiday bash he threw with nine other attorneys at Santia Hall, a banquet space in nearby Keego Harbor. He always sang “Blue Christmas” with his buddy Patrick.

And then, suddenly, on Halloween night in 2002, he threw a party for himself at the Oakland County Boat Club. A poster said “BYE BYE RICHIE.” His friend Irene Santia, the owner of Santia Hall, catered the event. There were cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a celebration of his plans for a new life in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Someone asked him when he would come back.

“Never,” he said.

On July 21, 2003, two men who’d been fishing northern Michigan’s South Branch Pine River alerted the sheriff’s department in Alcona County that a white Chevy Malibu had been found in the clearing of a forest a few hundred yards away from a campground. Nearby was a small orange dome tent, a cooler, lanterns, and a sleeping bag still in its stuffsack. On the bank of the river, where four bowed cedar trees shaded a pair of tea-colored pools, was a fishing rod. Just downstream was a badly decomposed body, lying face up, eyes open, feet pointed into the current, his fishing waders gathered around the ankles.

Standard procedure dictated a homicide investigation, but my uncle had made it easy for the detective at the scene, an Alcona County sheriff’s sergeant by the name of James McGuire. Twelve days earlier, Richard had sent a 600-word email to Irene, in which he spelled everything out: He had planned the time and place of his death for years. The going-away party had been his wake. He thanked her for being a friend. He provided both my mother’s phone number and that of a childhood buddy named Rick (who asked me not to use his last name).

The coroner found no water in my uncle’s lungs. Nor had he suffered a heart attack. What they did find, eventually, was poison: a lethal dose of alcohol and anxiety medications. McGuire ruled the death a suicide.

When I got the news of the email, I drove south from Berkeley, California, to my grandmother’s home in Orange County. And then, in early August, two weeks after the body was found, I drove south again, this time to my mother’s house in San Diego, where I walked into a terrible scene. My mother fretted and stormed, while my 89-year-old grandmother looked mummified, saying, “Why would he do such a thing?” Family and friends huddled in the living room. Someone read the kaddish. And then we did what grieving Jews do: we ate.

Several weeks later, Irene, along with a former neighbor of Richard’s, Ralph Diettrick, drove to the town of Harrisville, Michigan, to gather what remained of his worldly possessions. They visited Richard’s “Happy Place,” as he’d referred to the Pine River location in his email to Irene. In mid-August, Rick traveled from the East Coast to collect the cremains at Gillies Funeral Home in Lincoln, Michigan, later scattering them at the Pine. He met with Irene and Ralph downstate at Gino’s, a restaurant Irene owned. They got drunk and danced to Dion and the Belmonts, one of my uncle’s favorite bands.

Irene hosted the memorial at Santia Hall. Ninety or so friends, colleagues, and a handful of relatives attended. A young rabbi read a eulogy cobbled together from interviews with my mother and a few of Richard’s friends. The rabbi recited Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” rather than the traditional prayers for the dead. Irene spoke next. Rather than eulogize him, she read the email. There was no public sharing. The mourners were released to roam the canapés and open bar and to compare notes sotto voce.

My grandmother, mother, two siblings, and I were more aggrieved than bereaved at that point, and none of us flew across the country for this 30-minute remembrance. My mother said she wouldn’t have wanted to lionize my uncle, and she referred to Richard’s departure as his final fuck you to the family. Within ten months, we buried my grandmother, who plunged into a profound depression after her son’s death and refused to eat. My mother died of cancer in 2008. My grandfather had died of a stroke in 1974.

“Sinatra sang, ‘I did it my way,’” Richard had written to Irene. “Nobody ever did it more ‘my way’ than me. I lived the life I wanted to live, and now it’s time for me to go. Rico.”

I remember thinking, Good for you, asshole, and also puzzling over the nickname I’d never heard. Rico? Richie? Dick? Richard? Who the hell was he? And I wondered then whether I even cared.

Levine in his 1963 high school yearbook
Levine in his 1963 high school yearbook (Courtesy Brad Rassler)

“Inevitably our parents are the bearers of our disillusion,” wrote the novelist and social critic Harvey Swados. At age 12, whatever cocky self-confidence I had was stripped clean by the chaotic divorce of my parents, and my vulnerability was exposed, as plain as a facial blemish to my schoolmates, whose cruelty was merciless. In that horrible time, it was Richard, and not my ambitious father, who lifted me from my dark moods by saying, “C’mon, Bradley, let’s go.”

I was brooding and sullen and given to unusually vicious fits of rage. He was jocose and spontaneous, and his force of personality and wisecracking self-assurance were comforting albeit sometimes jarring. Despite his many hedonisms, his selfless investment in my experience and the mere acknowledgment that I mattered—plunking me down in Michigan lakes, rivers, and forests—helped a great deal. Those first forays seeded a passion for the outdoors that would find full expression for me out west on the rock faces and cirques of the Sierra Nevada.

And yet, suicides have a way of imprisoning the survivors. My family enjoyed spending days deconstructing the personalities of the people we had known, but Richard? We filed him away.

He was still with me in at least one sense, though: the family received a box containing the few possessions recovered from the Happy Place. There was a broken fly rod and an intact and newish click-pawl reel—an early and still effective mechanical drag design. There was a dented aluminum box about the size of an Altoids tin, with six spring-loaded windows that held an assortment of dry flies and nymphs and a few streamers, none of which appeared to have been used. I trashed the rod and stored the rest, which I packed and unpacked in each of the four moves I made over the next 16 years.

I moved again in late 2017. I was packing up the garage when I saw the reel and fly box, which I’d never used. At that point, I’d left business and gone to journalism school. I’d done editorial internships alongside twentysomethings from Northwestern and Columbia and Berkeley at a string of outdoor magazines, including Outside. As a journalist, I’d found that the actual writing of a story pales compared to the chase: the search for the lurking truth, wherever it might be found. I like to follow leads into dusty archives and track down characters who haven’t been heard from in decades. The chase gets me out of my head, where I spend too much time as it is, and into the world.

And now, here in a battered gear bin in my own garage, was a worthy mystery begging to be solved, one that might have bearing on my family history. I’d never known my uncle to fly-fish—he associated it with snobs. He fished for trout with an ultralight outfit, which consisted of a short, whippy rod, a small spinning reel, and a Mepps or a Panther Martin lure. The fly reel looked barely used. I figured he’d bought it the same year he went out west.

Which didn’t make sense. Why take up a discipline like fly-fishing if you planned to end your life within the year? I thought back to when I first heard about his move to Steamboat.

“Are you sitting down?” my mother had said to me by phone, sometime in the autumn of 2002. “Your uncle is selling everything to become a ski bum.”

I was living in California’s Berkeley Hills, in the midst of a fifth career change in 15 years.

“Bradley? Do you hear me? He’s moving to Colorado.” She said he planned to tend bar at night, to ski and fish during the day.

“Richard’s leaving Michigan?” I said. “For good?” By then I called him Richard. He was 57, and I was 40. She said he’d already sold his house, a ski condo up north, boats, a motorcycle—everything but a pop-up camper and a pickup.

Now, nearly 17 years later, approaching the same age as Richard when he moved west, I decided it was important to understand the uncle who left Michigan. And the uncle who returned.

Richard traveled by rail from east to west on his occasional visits to California, so I made plans to do the same in the opposite direction. In mid-May of 2019, I booked a tiny sleeper on the California Zephyr, packed the reel and fly box into a rolling bag, and boarded the train in Reno, Nevada. I planned to get off in Chicago, rent a car, and drive to Michigan to visit Richard’s old haunts. Eventually, I’d go north, to the Happy Place. I’d visit Steamboat on the return leg.

I latched the door to the room, drew the curtains, and began to assemble notes, which included Sergeant McGuire’s incident report. I had also interviewed my uncle’s acquaintances, two ex-wives, old lovers, fellow attorneys, ski buddies, friends of the Levine family dating back to Pontiac (including my uncle’s best friends, Rick and a man named Steve Wyman), and every living relative who was willing to share memories.

The coroner found no water in my uncle’s lungs. Nor had he suffered a heart attack. What they did find, eventually, was poison: a lethal dose of alcohol and anxiety medications. McGuire ruled the death a suicide.

Those conversations converged on a stunning revelation: Richard had been a master of disguise, of dissimulation. A cousin spoke for us all when she said, “His death made me see that the piece I got from him was just maybe 2 or 10 or 20 percent of who he really was. What were the other parts?”

Those parts would reveal themselves gradually. I assumed, for instance, that my uncle loved train travel for the pure cinema of the landscape transforming from prairie to steppe to mountains. But as I learned, the train was also an extension of his sporting life, because he would work the club car, using one-liners to try and pick up women.

Before my departure, I made another odd discovery. I logged on to the Oakland County Register of Deeds database, and there, for anyone curious enough to have looked, was a clue: Richard’s home had been repossessed right around the time he left for Colorado.

Richard was born in Pontiac in postwar 1945, on the cusp of prosperous times for the country—and the Motor City itself. Home movies show him in hyperkinetic infancy, struggling to jump from a high chair, mauling bars of a playpen, determined to escape anything holding him in. There are scenes of him at age two brazenly slapping the family’s immense collie, at three pedaling a trike twice his size, and at about five or six working the oars of a full-size rowboat in one of northern Michigan’s lakes, each pull forceful enough to raise him off his seat.

You could almost see him exorcising some other force that had already taken hold. Anti-Semitism was rampant—Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin, the Radio Priest, spewed anti-Jewish sentiment to a nationwide audience from a local radio station, WJR—and Pontiac’s Jewish community circled its wagons. My grandparents were leaders in that world: he was a shoe retailer, she worked alongside him, and they devoted much of their lives to a small reform congregation. My grandfather, a native of Tuscaloosa who had dropped out of the University of Alabama’s law school to earn a living, was rabbinic in his pursuit of knowledge. His son was not.

Even as a child, Richard was the profane to my grandfather’s sacred. My grandmother, a tall, regal, gracious woman, made peace in the household. My mother, who was six years older than Richard, was strong-willed herself but went off to college when he was only 11.

That was the same year my grandfather suffered the first of the heart attacks and strokes that would eventually kill him. In Richard’s last note, he referred to his father’s initial heart attack as “the Day the Music Died.”

From that day on life in our home was forever grim—constant worries about my dad’s health, constant worries about money. I vowed to myself then that when life became grim for me, I wouldn’t stay around.

He was shaving and besotted by girls at 13, the year he was bar mitzvahed, and he tried to talk Rick and Steve into jumping off the garage roof. He became a sometime brawler at Pontiac Central, played football and tennis, acted in school plays, and was charismatic enough to pick up girls at Ted’s, Woodward Avenue’s famous drive-in burger joint. Rick described him variously as a stallion, a rebel, and a bad boy.

He attended Miami of Ohio and joined a frat. In the summer of 1967, between college and law school, he moved to San Francisco, lived in the Haight, and found work moving furniture. He once told me that he didn’t partake in the Summer of Love because he found most of the hippies to be privileged Jewish kids from the suburbs. In June of 1968, the same year he entered law school, he married a high school girlfriend he’d met at a synagogue mixer. She filed for divorce two years later. He passed the bar the same year and became an assistant prosecutor. He got a draft number but was exempted from Vietnam because of a chronic skin condition. He married a social worker from the courts in ’72 and became a defense attorney in ’73. Three years later, his wife left him because he was having an affair.

He didn’t do feelings and was allergic to sentimentality. But most people found him kind and giving, both of his money and his time. He volunteered for the Special Olympics and the Humane Society. He taught at a community college. He hosted summer barbecues: steaks and drinks all around. Women, especially those newly out of relationships, found him charismatic, intense, and fun. Men and children liked him because he was jolly and playful. He could listen to someone’s woes without becoming self-referential. He avowed love of his family, especially my mother. When he was good, he was very good.

But he was driven by a hunger for sex that never seemed to abate. “What he wanted to become was someone irresistible to women,” Steve told me. “He wanted to get the sex that resulted from it, but even if it didn’t, he still wanted to be that person that women would think: I would like to go to bed with that guy.” Or, as he told someone not long before his death, “I’m a mother’s worst nightmare.”

There was more. When he was in his thirties, he told a legal secretary that he’d been sexually abused by a man at summer camp. “I didn’t realize it was molestation,” he told her. “It felt pretty good to me.”

Meanwhile, as a defense attorney, he defended men who’d been accused of date rape so deviously well that some questioned his morality, including me. He once told Steve that the key was jury selection. “I want women on the jury—working women,” he said. “I want cashiers. I want low-end salesclerks. Because they are harder on other women than any man could ever be. Their attitude is, Honey, if you weren’t looking for it, what the hell were you doing up in his room at 11 o’clock at night?” His lawyering and womanizing seemed to be part of the same unseemly, sometimes repugnant ethical system, and this is where we parted ways.

His ex-wives and family members confirmed that he was burdened by incredible pressure from his parents, both of whom were exquisitely conscious of the opinions of others. He was an ambivalent Jew, acutely aware of the religion to which he’d been born, dutifully attending the Passover seder my mother held every year, but he shied from a Yiddish term that my grandmother often attached to others: mensch. A mensch, at least in my family’s cosmology, could be counted on to do the right thing, to be the perfect father, breadwinner, community member. A mensch he assumed he was not, and I gathered that he never believed he could be.

As for his suicide email: it was full of bravado and clichés, but because it was the only clue he left behind, it was deconstructed by family and friends, with many interpretations advanced and contradicted. Some viewed the note as a red herring, his death less the triumphal leap he made it out to be than a piteous shuffle away from life. Others assumed he was either physically or mentally ill, or both, although he’d shown little sign of either problem. Another camp took the note at face value, because Richard had proclaimed occasionally that he didn’t care to grow old and had once told a friend that there would be no better way to die than in a trout stream.

I didn’t know what to think. His death seemed consistent with a certain inborn selfishness and stubbornness, but it smelled more like a tragic act born of despair.

Had he suffered vicarious trauma from a career as a criminal defense attorney? Was he a narcissist who couldn’t deal with his fading looks, bad knees, loss of money—too vain or depressed to begin again? He’d told some friends he’d lost his interest in sex, a possible side effect of medication, depression, or age. From my mother, we know he was on medication to stave off panic attacks, which he suffered in part from worrying that he would have a heart attack and collapse in court. He had suffered a cataclysmic financial setback, which, if exposed, would strip him of persona and lifestyle. As Philip Roth once wrote of a libidinous middle-aged male character: “There was no unsnarling an existence whose waywardness constituted its only authority and provided its primary amusement.”

“What a fucking waste,” one of his ex-wives told me, summing up what he’d done to himself. “What a fucking waste.”

The author in San Diego County’s Laguna Mountains circa 1985
The author in San Diego County’s Laguna Mountains circa 1985 (Courtesy Brad Rassler)
Richard with his mother, Ida “Dee” Levine
Richard with his mother, Ida “Dee” Levine (Courtesy Brad Rassler)

The train contoured the Colorado River, threaded Glenwood Canyon and then Gore Canyon, and was now side-winding down the eastern slope of the Rockies. My uncle would have thrilled to this scene, so different from the interminable plains. Soon the lingering high-country winter gave way to prairie spring. In Denver, I had meals delivered to the room and shuttered the sleeper. About 24 hours to Chicago.

Richard was twice divorced by the time I got to know him well. To my childhood imagination, he was the dark, handsome uncle who played the bongos and drove a green Austin Healey. I was into baseball, both following the Tigers and playing the sport, but he stuck a Zebco spin-cast rod in my hand when I was 11, and with my grandfather Julian took me to the Upper Peninsula one year to fish Manistique Lake. After that he bought me a pair of waders and an ultralight spinning outfit like the one he used and introduced me to Paint Creek, a trout stream just a few miles from his home in Lake Orion. Even as a kid, I could tell that my uncle fished to relax. And fishing mostly meant heading up north and scrambling down cut banks to hit the swift, cold waters of his beloved Michigan streams.

There were other outings and camping trips, along with sleepovers at his various bachelor pads, always on a lake, one of them a converted stable and another a derelict boathouse. These ramshackle domains were inhabited by his dogs—a Dalmatian, a setter mix, and a golden retriever named Sundance—and littered with issues of Sports Afield and Field and Stream, featuring articles like “From Lee Wulff: How I Play Trophy Fish” and “How to Outwit the Wily Ringneck!”

During a fishing trip in rural Michigan with one of my uncle’s friends, we drove to a roadhouse in separate cars. I was 12 or 13. Richard was married. He started flirting with a woman who was shooting pool and sent me packing with his friend, who dolefully shook his head but refused to condemn Richard’s behavior.

Richard once told a legal secretary that law school and lawyering had changed him for the worse. Maybe it did. His callousness, even cruelty, leaked into our interactions at times. Once when I was still little, we were playing catch after a day of fishing. He started rifling the ball, which was difficult to see. “Hey, Uncle Richard, slow it down,” I said, sure that it was only a matter of time before I took one in the face. He threw it harder still, as if I needed toughening up. In college I got to thinking about the fishing trips and called to thank him. He just laughed. “Bradley, are you stoned?” In fact I was.

If Richard followed the lead of the family’s few restless men who had come before, prioritizing lifestyle over material wealth, then I patterned my life after his to a degree that makes me think we were both born to be misfits. He skipped the lockstep route, which in his world meant marrying a trophy wife, raising precocious kids who found their way into top colleges, and buying a house in Bloomfield or Franklin. Still, he kept up appearances enough to please his mother and others, while he pursued his own very obvious passions.

My reverence for him diminished as I grew older. He’d visit San Diego, where I’d moved, every few years. “I wonder which Richard is going to show up,” my mother would say, referring to his moodiness, and the person we saw was often the impeccably dressed uncle whose interest in his family ran skin-deep, if that. Increasingly, I tired of the brashness, which was overpowering, like the cologne he wore.

“Richard always felt like he had to be on,” my brother, Michael, told me recently. “And when you have to live that way, feeling like you gotta be on all the time, it’s tough.” Michael, who was occasionally rescued by my uncle during his own rough-and-tumble middle school years, sometimes seemed more like a contemporary of Richard’s than his young nephew, and he wasn’t that surprised by how Richard’s story ended. “When he had his mind made up to do something, that’s just the way it was gonna be.” When Richard left for Colorado, Michael figured that his life would last as long as his retirement dollars held out.

The Zephyr pushed into Chicago’s Union Station two hours late, so I cabbed through rush hour to O’Hare, rented a car, started driving southeast, and entered a big-box retail outfitter in Hammond, Indiana, a few minutes before closing time. There I bought an inexpensive four-piece pack rod to accompany my uncle’s reel and drove through the night to Detroit.

Irene Santia hugged me, held me at arm’s length, and asked me to smile. I smiled. “I see the resemblance,” she said, and then she hugged me again. She had a soft, refined voice, bright brown eyes, and a strong face framed by shoulder-length hair. Her manner and looks reminded me of my mother.

Gino’s pizzeria and restaurant, which Irene owns with her brother, is Keego Harbor’s most famous family eatery. When I was in high school, I drove 16 miles round-trip just for the garlic breadsticks. Santia Hall is a few dozen yards to the north.

My uncle was in charge of organizing the Big Ten party. That’s how he and Irene met. But their friendship was never really close until the last year of his life. She was inspired by his decision to move. Why don’t I do the same thing? she thought. By 2003, her kids were finished with school. She had recently divorced and sold the house. And then, around Labor Day, Richard told her he’d be leaving Michigan and asked her to cater the Bye Bye Richie party. She was shocked, like everybody else.

“So within a month, he had sold his condo, and he sold his boat, and he sold all his stuff, and even his business partners thought this was so sudden,” Irene told me. She wanted to comp the party, but he insisted on paying. Richard told her: “If you want to see me again, why don’t you come out? We can ski.”

By the time Irene visited him in Steamboat that winter, Richard seemed plugged in to the community. “He just attracted people,” she said. “He had a million people around him all the time.”

But Irene said that, in private, “He was talking crazy, things like, ‘I don’t want to live to be an old man. I don’t have any health insurance. I don’t have any retirement. I never planned on old age.’”

Irene had a thought. People liked Richard, and she knew how to run a business. “Why don’t I come to Colorado,” she said. “We can open something up together, and you can be the front man, and I’ll do the restaurant part of it.” He was grateful but refused. Later, the first two lines of his final note read: “Your options idea is so sweet, and maybe a while ago it would have worked. Unfortunately, that time has come and gone.”

She met him at Disney World in April and then in Michigan at one of Richard’s favorite campgrounds, near Alpena. At some point, he explained how trout streams were dangerous because of the possibility of wading into a hole.

“Sinatra sang, ‘I did it my way,’” Richard had written to Irene. “Nobody ever did it more ‘my way’ than me. I lived the life I wanted to live, and now it’s time for me to go. Rico.”

The email she received at around 5 P.M. on July 9 changed her life. She looked at it in confusion before alarm kicked in. There was no mobile number, so she couldn’t call him. She dialed a hotline instead, and the worker advised her to phone the state police.

“Then my worst call was to your mother, my goodness,” she told me. Irene reminded me that my mother became overwhelmed during that call. Mom then called me and asked me to call Irene. I did. Irene forwarded me the email on the morning of July 10. It’s still in my archived inbox.

“Irene,” my uncle had written, “you are the most unselfish person I’ve ever known—so as sad as it is for you to say ‘good-bye,’ PLEASE you & my family have to know that this is the way that I always wanted it. I’ve had every detail figured out for years—the place, the setting. Even the ‘Bye-bye Richie’ party which I always figured to have at Santia Hall. Except I got to attend—GREAT PARTY.”

He’d drafted the note on stationery from an Upper Peninsula motel several days before he typed it into an email at a small public library. He said he’d lived an extraordinary life and was fine with bringing it to an end. He quoted a Sinatra song, “Cycles,” in its entirety. He assumed that Irene would mourn him and also willingly act as an intermediary. He was right, but he put her in a terrible bind.

Irene didn’t know why Richard chose her to be the messenger. Today when she speaks of his death, she says he “did his thing.” As in: “After Richard did his thing, I had to see a psychologist.” Her therapist eventually helped her understand that there wasn’t anything she could have done to save him. “The therapist said, ‘Well, think of your divorce. You know, he tried all these options in his life, and they just didn’t work for him.’”

“He was bigger than life sometimes, you know,” Irene said, suddenly grinning, motioning with her hands as if to convey my uncle’s persona. “He just enjoyed life so much.” She dropped her arms. “People still ask me why he did it. They think because he sent me the suicide note that I know.”

Richard put more than a thousand miles on his rental car before he parked it at the Pine. On July 6, three days after his 58th birthday, credit-card records put him at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula, where he probably visited nearby Tahquamenon Falls, which he would have first seen as a child. Before that he would have fished the Au Sable, the Manistee, and an unnamed creek north of Crystal Mountain that he especially liked. On July 8, he made his final purchase at a Citgo station in Glennie, just 12 miles from the Happy Place.

As I retraced his route, I noticed transitions I’d seen many times. North of suburban Detroit, I-75 is just another superhighway, but at some point, the fast-food joints and big-box stores give way to farmland. There’s a 20-foot-tall picture of Jesus and the question “ARE YOU ON THE RIGHT ROAD?” Highway 23 swings around Saginaw Bay and then north to trace the Lake Huron shoreline, bisected by the kitsch signage of hundreds of two-tracks leading to vacation compounds: Up North Pole, Seas the Day, Suite Summertime. When I reached a town called Oscoda, I crossed over the outlet of the Au Sable and entered Harrisville, the seat of Alcona County.

The Alcona County Sheriff’s Office is a squat brown and tan brick building set on an acre of lush turf, a row of oaks lining its boundary to the north. When I arrived at 7 P.M., there were no cars in the lot, but the door was open, and I walked into a sterile lobby of cinder block and institutional floor tile. Partition glass separated the lobby from the dispatcher’s room, glowing with the luminescence of computer screens. I asked for Sergeant McGuire.

“He’s out now,” said the dispatcher, a young guy with long hair. I said I’d wait. Before long a door opened, and a big man with a graying mustache poked his head out. He wore a brown and tan uniform shirt with maize chevrons on both sleeves. A badge on the right breast pocket, an iPhone in the left; a revolver and stun gun attached to his belt.

“You looking for McGuire?” he said. His tone was gruff but not unkind.

I nodded and explained who I was. “I’m gonna be a little bit. I didn’t know you were comin’,” he said, adjusting his eyeglasses. So this was McGuire, the man who’d not only been at the death scene but also investigated the suicide.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I do recall some things that might not be in the report,” he added. “Is your grandmother still alive?”

I told him she died in 2004.

“Your uncle did not want your grandmother to know that he was committing suicide. His girlfriend told me,” he said. “I talked to her quite a few times. She said that he talked about suicide numerous times, and she had not heard from him in several days. She told me that he’d gone through all his money, so he was broke. She said he wasn’t answering his phone, she was sure he’d committed suicide.” (The girlfriend McGuire mentioned declined to be interviewed for this story.)

After McGuire told me these things, he excused himself and reappeared clutching a file folder. He unlocked the door to a side room with a metal desk and two chairs. He sat behind the desk and shuffled through the paperwork, which contained a stack of photographs.

McGuire sighed.

“When they brought the body up, he’d been in the river awhile. So it wasn’t real pretty. The autopsy picture you don’t want to see, because it’s a close-up. But there’s one that I really want to show you, because it’ll show you the real cause of all this, OK? Part of his plan.”

I walked around to McGuire’s side of the desk and stared at some color photos. I said I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

“These are his feet, right?” McGuire said, pointing at the bottom of the frame. “There’s his shoes. His waders were chest waders, and they’re brought all the way down to here.” He pointed at the ankles. “You can see his zipper is open, like he stopped to take a leak. So he made it look like he fell in the river.”

McGuire flipped through the stack to reveal photos of the abandoned campsite. There was something far more piteous about it than the photo of his corpse. McGuire didn’t think he had actually slept in the tent, that it was more like a staged setting.

Richard died in the river but left his last testament on the shore, in the stagecraft of the camp. And while the main act would take place on the Pine, this is where the soliloquy would have been recited. The suicide note was dated July 9; the coroner estimated that he died on July 12. He fished for three days, attempting to work it all out. And when he couldn’t, he went down to the water for the last time. But why fake an accident when you’ve already told the world what you had done and why?

McGuire closed the file and pushed back from the desk. “I’m gonna have to go.” He drew me a crude map to the site. “This is where the body was found, right by this tree down here, so you can look down there and see it. You’ll see that the cedar tree goes just like this”—he slashed his pen across the sketch of the river just upstream of a bend—“if it’s still there. I’m sure it is.”

He paused.

“You know, I have not fished that river since,” he said, referring to the Pine. “Yep. I got a little scarred there.”


“I used to fish that river all the time. Rainbows and brook trout. But I have not been back since. I patrol it, but I don’t fish in it. It’s just that every time I drive by—”

He broke off. There was something he wanted to explain.

“When I’m out fishing, if that’s on my mind, I don’t relax. So I just don’t go there anymore. It’s just one of those things. I always have that thought on that river. Hate that thought.”

I told McGuire I planned to fish the Pine and the Au Sable. He removed the phone from his left breast pocket, swiped through photos, and showed me an image of a guy cradling a 20-inch brown trout. It was McGuire’s cousin, who had hooked it on a stretch of the Au Sable east of Mio.

“The Hendricksons were out,” McGuire said, referring to the mayfly species Ephemerella subvaria. “I don’t know if they are now. Within the next week, the brown drakes are going to come out, so we’re going to have to switch flies.”

The South Branch Pine River, not far from Levine’s Happy Place
The South Branch Pine River, not far from Levine’s Happy Place (Courtesy Brad Rassler)

It rained hard that night and again the next morning. I picked up a fishing permit, groceries, a few odd camping items, and filled the tank. I seemed to be procrastinating, not particularly keen to confront this long­-imagined geography of death. In the late afternoon, I headed west, driving miles of gravel roads lined with jack pine. The river was out of sight, shrouded by foliage.

I came to the campground, passed it, slowed, and glimpsed a faint two-track angling into the forest. I pulled onto it. Eventually, I entered a clearing about the size of a baseball infield surrounded by forest. A fire pit. A couple of saplings nailed to two cedars. And a faint footpath heading to the Pine: the Happy Place.

Sixteen summers had come and gone since my uncle last camped here. Whatever happened to transform this site from mere dirt and trees to his holy of holies, I hadn’t a clue. Had he stumbled on it after a particularly fine day of fishing? When did he understand that only woods and wind and water brought him peace—brought him home? And what compelled him to take his life in the same landscape that had given him so much?

I didn’t intend to talk to the dead. Nor did I intend to pray, meditate, chant, recite Sinatra, or light a candle. I asked nothing of this place, wanted nothing. I wasn’t here to give anything to it other than a fly line attached to an old click-pawl reel.

I walked down a path gauntleted by trees, the ground spongy, the browns of spent cedar needles shuffled together with the ashen leaf litter from oak and birch. After about 50 yards, the trail descended, and I glimpsed the river for the first time. The low sun glanced off the water and, in some spots, penetrated it, the multilayered roiling of lazy whirlpools creating a shimmering veneer, which seemed to skate across deeper, more massive depths that repelled all light. To my left stood four cedars in a line from the bank into the water. The canopy tended to quiet the air and extend the shadows, and I left that place and walked downstream to where the forest opened up. Here along the river were newly sprung grasses and unfurling maidenhair ferns. Here was a downed cedar, a riffle forming a little pour-over where the water purled out of sight. A grouse drummed in the distance.

The family’s sad place. McGuire’s scarred place. Richard’s Happy Place, his ultimate angle of repose, unchanged for all time.

I had it in my mind to fish the stretch of river, but it was too cold, too late in the day to plunge into the deep tea-colored pools without waders, which I didn’t have. The trout weren’t rising, but I tied on the Hendrickson anyway. I treated the seven-foot fly rod like a tree branch, dapping the fly into the pool just below the cut bank. Then I blanked for a while, which is the only reason I fish—to indulge in waking dreams—and when I snapped to, the light was fading. It was too predictable, this business of reacquainting a dead relative’s fly line with his beloved trout stream, but I had done the thing that needed doing.

I considered camping in the clearing, but the idea creeped me out. So I drove to the campground. No one was there. It was a clear, windless night. The moon was slow to rise. Bullfrogs droned in the distance, punctuated by the intermittent keening of a lone coyote. I directed my headlamp into a stand of trees, and a solitary pair of eyes shone back. My headlamp caught the gleam of wolf spiders circling the fire ring. Suddenly, from the direction of the campground entrance, I heard a raucous clank of metal on metal. I waited for headlights to appear, and when none did, I packed my car, doused the fire, and drove into the night.

Richard’s life had been unraveling well before his going-away party in Michigan: the home repossession made that clear. Some noticed he was spending more time alone up north at his condo near Boyne City. He was working less, tired of defending the same offenders. At some point, a couple of Oakland County sheriff’s deputies would have knocked on his door, asked him to empty his wallet, and padlocked his home. Without money for a moving truck, he must have walked away from it all: his furniture, the boat, the toys, the motorcycle.

He was now homeless. He needed a new destination and an honorable excuse to leave town. There was always the Happy Place. No. He’d head out west, become a ski bum. It would look like he retired, and besides, everybody reinvented themselves in ski towns. He found enough money for the Bye Bye Richie party and maybe sold some salvaged possessions. And then he was gone.

Why did Steamboat turn sour? There’s a photo of him posing with his skis on the deck of the condo he was renting, up toward Rabbit Ears Pass, the sweep of the Yampa Valley behind him. He’s holding his Völkls, smiling, wearing a teal ski jacket and a Bass Pro Shop cap. He mailed the photo to family and friends in the late winter of 2002. The image was glued to a greeting card and used as a keepsake at the August memorial: “Richard J. Levine. 7/3/45—7/10/03.”

He called me in late autumn to tell me about his move—strange, because he rarely called. I probably congratulated him in the same way I did with others who ditched corporate life. I figured he was reaping the rewards of a prosperous career.

The family’s sad place. McGuire’s scarred place. Richard’s Happy Place, his ultimate angle of repose, unchanged for all time.

What Richard wanted, I think, was my approval. After all, I’d done the same thing, sampling and jettisoning a variety of well-compensated jobs to finally make a vocation of play in the eastern Sierra, my own Happy Place, long before it became fashionable to do so.

Richard called me from Steamboat a few weeks later. And then he called again. Three calls in a few months were an all-time record. We’d rarely spoken during his lawyering years, and when we did, the calls were pro forma, with him always the first to say, “Hey, Bradley, gotta run.”

The calls began as check-ins—he’d tell me about cross-country skiing or snowshoeing behind his condo, and we fell into a discussion of, say, the quality of Steamboat’s powder, the relative merits of striding versus skating, the joy and hazards of backcountry skiing. But what I remember most was a neediness that I’d never seen or heard in him. And what was especially strange about these calls: I was the one who had to end them.

When I was in Steamboat in May 2019, the conifers up on 9,426-foot Rabbit Ears Pass were flocked with slowly melting snow from a recent storm. Here was where Richard kicked and glided on Bruce’s Trail like a zealot, faster and faster as he dropped weight and got fitter.

He got a bartending gig at the Hilltop, a resort hotel. He became a member of the Over the Hill Gang, an athletic club for members “50 and better.”

It all shattered, of course. Maybe he didn’t like the town or the people. Maybe he was homesick. More likely, he was worried about the future. It was one thing to tend bar as a Sam Malone fantasy; it was another when you needed the tips to make rent. His sporting life was built around the smell of success. His mother could have been right all along: there was more to life than having fun.

When I was 11 or 12, my grandmother read me “Richard Cory,” a short 1897 poem by Edward Arlington Robinson that describes a prosperous man who takes his own life with a gun. After reciting the horrific final quatrain, she asked me what I thought of it. I might have said something like, “Money isn’t everything,” but she said it had a deeper message: people are not knowable to one another, or even entirely to ourselves.

Maybe she should have introduced Richard Cory to Richard Levine. Maybe she did. My uncle was afraid he couldn’t measure up to what my grandmother considered the Jewish man in full. He became darkly guilt-ridden when he realized he never would, and though he loved and respected my grandmother, his resentment, I think, bordered on antipathy. I’m sure she wanted him to be happy. I’m equally sure she had no idea that he, a person whose hedonic lifestyle inspired envy in other men his age, was something of a Richard Cory himself. He killed her when he killed himself. He had to know he would. That was reason enough to miss the memorial and neglect his memory for 16 years.

There are many Richards, and there will always be. “Suicide has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out,” wrote the poet, literary critic, and avid rock climber A. Alvarez in his 1971 book on the subject, The Savage God. And here in America, where we extol our exceptionalism to anyone who will listen, the suicides of middle-aged white men like my uncle permeate the narrative—especially in the West, where hypermasculinity, isolation, economic hardship, and sparse mental health resources are doing men in.

For the general population, suicide has gone from a not-uncommon but diffuse phenomenon to a sweeping public-health problem. According to the most recent statistics collected by federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. Some 48,344 people died of suicide or self-inflicted injury in 2018, which comes to 14.8 people per 100,000, a 35 percent increase from 1999. Nearly 2.8 million Americans planned a suicide in 2018 alone, and a shocking 1.4 million attempted it. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, and for middle-aged men, whose rate of suicide outpaces those of similarly aged women by 3.1 to 1, it ranks fourth, a staggering 45 percent increase from 1999. The suicide rate outstrips the homicide rate. And thanks to our country’s addiction to guns—per capita ownership is the highest in the world—it’s not surprising that 50 percent of men take their lives with a firearm.

I looked for answers in the ocean of suicide literature, and the words of the poet and climber landed best. “A suicide’s excuses are mostly by the way,” wrote Alvarez, who survived his own 1960 attempt and died last year at 90. “At best they assuage the guilt of the survivors, soothe the tidy-minded, and encourage the sociologists in their endless search for convincing categories and theories. They are like a trivial border incident which triggers a major war. The real motives which impel a man to take his own life are elsewhere; they belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight.”

It’s a testament to my uncle’s playacting that he was able to keep the truths so compartmentalized. No one person held all the clues. Most of his relationships were constructed around doing, not thinking, and he didn’t offer much about his inner life. Maybe we who thought we knew him could have gathered for one of those team-building games where individuals share information that’s privy only to them, to make a whole out of the parts. But we would have played in vain.

Even so, many of us still wonder whether intervention at precisely the right moment could have saved Richard from himself.

I think it could have.

His announcement that he’d be quitting and uprooting, which came out of nowhere and befuddled most who knew him, should have been an alarm. And his potential for self-destruction should have been apparent to any psychologist discerning enough to see through his clever prevarications.

After all, a doctor had prescribed the anxiety medication. Was it an agreeable G.P. who happily dispensed it without conducting a rigorous intake? Psychopathology is often at the root of suicide, and as Kay Redfield Jamison writes in An Unquiet Mind, her memoir about surviving bipolar disorder, “manic-depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live.”

And yet, Richard’s conditions—whether depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, alcoholism—were treatable.

At some point, his resolve cracked, and he shared his plans with the girlfriend who called McGuire. The family was clueless about what he had in mind. Had we known, we would have run to help him.

By April 2003, Richard was out of Colorado, never to return. He visited my grandmother in Laguna and my mother in San Diego. Of those visits, I know little—but judging by my mother’s dismay at his death, his behavior belied his intentions.

From San Diego, he was off to Florida, where he attended a family wedding party outside Fort Lauderdale. He was characteristically gregarious and flirtatious, but he became visibly disturbed after a visit with his 95-year-old-aunt—my grandmother’s sister—who was showing signs of severe dementia. He left for Orlando, where Irene and Rick separately met up with him at Disney World and a campground in the Ocala National Forest. Soon after, he left for Michigan. By May 13, he was up north.

I’ve wondered how my uncle summoned the will to put on a happy face and drive around the country. A depressive episode saps the body of strength and will, and the psychic pain can be every bit as intense as the physical. The last road trip may have coincided with a final spurt of mania.

Irene, who was one of the last of his friends to see him alive, commented on how happy he looked when he was hip deep in a river.

Is that what he was trying to do on his walkabout? Self-medicating with a nature Rx—the potency of which was insufficient to salvage a life? Or was the dose overwhelming, as in the Langston Hughes short poem “Suicide’s Note,” which says:

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

Levine and friend
Levine and friend (Courtesy Brad Rassler)

“You’ll want some of these,” said a sweet-tempered bear of a guy, Lance Nelson, of Gates Au Sable Lodge, as he plucked an assortment of flies from the bins. He rented me chest waders and wading boots and sketched directions to an eight-mile stretch of river designated as catch and release, for fly-fishers only: the Au Sable’s holy water.

An hour before dusk, the sandy two-track to the put-in gave way to a clearing and a sign erected by Trout Unlimited, the national conservation nonprofit founded here. “Welcome to GUIDES REST,” it said, followed by five lines of doggerel describing how life is short, and how the river, which is fragile, has important things to tell fisher folk if they only stop and listen.

I ignored the new flies and grabbed my uncle’s dented box. I donned waders and boots. At the river’s edge, I chanced upon a guide and his two clients taking a break, their 23-foot-long Au Sable riverboat floating in an eddy.

With one of Richard’s old Hendricksons bound to the tippet, I aimed for the downstream right bank of an island that, according to Nelson, held trout. The party of three floated past, so I had the holy water to myself—flatwater mostly, eminently wadeable, its current sluggish but insistent enough to make me take care with each step on the gravelly bed.

For my uncle, the Yampa Valley hadn’t been the cure. Neither was skiing Bruce’s Trail. The jig was up. The struggle abandoned. Depressed, exhausted, lost, too ill to maintain the illusion of indomitability, too proud to turn to his family for help, he chose the lesser of two terrors. But he had one last lie to tell: Richie, Rico.

I don’t intend to glorify self-determination. I don’t condone the wanton littering of one’s corpse when one decides one is through with his body. If my uncle were gravely ill—mentally ill—he would have lacked the capacity to understand that he was more marionette than master of the universe. Fear had him. He self-medicated by skiing and fishing and all the rest, but their half-life was unmercifully short. Would he have celebrated his 75th birthday in 2020 had he taken meds and submitted to talk therapy? He’d told Ralph Diettrick, his former neighbor, that in their dotage they would retire up north and pick up old women: a hint that he could envision himself living well beyond his fifties.

He would have written the email to Irene in Glennie’s public library. And then he would have driven east on blacktop to the Pine, either in the quiet of night or the glare of a midsummer’s day. The hard right onto the gravel washboard access road would have jolted the car, and maybe his conscience: his mother was still alive, after all. He drove on, mindful of the reunion with his beloved geography, the place he’d nurtured in his imagination for so many years.

As I moved along in the Au Sable, the island came into view at last, with its obvious fish trove on the downstream side, formed by a deep eddy against the far bank. The water was deeper here, so I stopped short and false-casted in vain against the wind. The clouds lowered some, and the sun was falling as I turned and walked against the current.

I waded my first river with Uncle Richard. The rod I held in my hand that day was more ornament than tool, and I glimpsed something more important than sport. Rivers don’t judge. Neither, thankfully, do fish.

The pines and birch lining the shoreline at Guides Rest seined the fading sun, but there was still enough light. I cast toward a few pools hard by the dozens of fallen snags lining the holy water and crossed to the far bank, aiming for an inky realm overlain by another snag. Nothing. The water was seamed in the river’s belly, so that’s where I redelivered the fly, which I could barely see. I mended the line a few times and waited.

I’ve rewound and reimagined my uncle’s death on the Pine more times than I’d care to recount. The speculative version that resides in my waking dreams swerves markedly from the one he described. At the height of summer, birdsong would have filled the canopy that covered the Pine River trail just beyond Richard’s car. He drank coffee and then alcohol. He slipped off his wristwatch, placed it on the hood of the car, and pulled on the waders, the one prop pivotal to the staging he had in mind, and walked the path down to the river. He swallowed pills and allowed himself one last glance at the trail. He crouched next to the cut bank, allowed water to slip into his waders. And then he fished.

If the Lower Peninsula resembles a mitten, then the Upper Peninsula looks like a hare bounding west over the North Country, over the prairie steppes, over the Rockies, over the Cascades, and into the Pacific. An instinctive flight ingrained in many Americans, and certainly in Richard, although he leaped, perhaps, without comprehending the tether knotted to his leg. Don’t all happy places presuppose landscapes of despair?

When I was young, I was determined to live like he did, unencumbered and free. But as I grew into adulthood, I perceived the shadow in the man I had once admired.

All that coffee and liquor pressing against his bladder: Drop the waders or keep fishing? Drop them, he decided, though he was feeling the effects of the cocktail, could barely operate his hands. He let the rod go. And something about that decision—one very much cohering to dignity and decorum and to Pontiac—may have made him reconsider his choice to die. The fishing was good. The Pine was working its magic. There were promising years ahead.

He struggled into the shallows, dropped his bibs just far enough, and then attempted to gain his feet. But physics played another trick on him: no longer buoyed by water, the waders crashed around his ankles and became leaden weight. Richard could not shuck them from his feet, and down he went. Too weary and too late to do any good.

To the young rabbi who eulogized my uncle in 2003, Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” would have seemed like an apt substitute for the kaddish, with its images of nature’s power to heal.

“[W]here the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,” Berry wrote. “… For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” But the selection was off, because Berry was writing about self-renewal, not self-destruction. Richard would have preferred Sinatra. Better to leave us believing he’d done it his way.

Who was Richard? Rico? Richie? Dick Levine? Which one of them had a heart? Which one of them was bereft? Which were mentally ill? Who bore terrible shame? Who wanted liberation? Which of them craved absolution?

And who was I to give it?

I found an “I’m sorry” greeting card he wrote to my grandmother in that final year. It was uncharacteristically expressive. He called her his spiritual and emotional exemplar and apologized for not having been in touch. “There are some issues that I am working through right now and I will talk to you … about them soon … I think of you every day and I love you … Remember—timing is everything.”

When I was young, I was determined to live like he did, unencumbered and free. But as I grew into adulthood, I perceived the shadow in the man I had once admired.

“Timing is everything.” What was I doing here now, really? Had I come to add my own narrative to the Happy Place? Could it be that I was tethered, too? Curious, as I approached my uncle’s jumping-off age, about the why and the how and especially the where. But there was something more: the who.

Had I come to thank him for pointing the way, for showing me the peace of wild things? Had I come to the Pine to be shriven? To atone for my judgment and contempt as he fell in my eyes from a man I aspired to emulate to someone I couldn’t be bothered to visit in Steamboat? For having judged him callous, selfish, toxic, misogynist, and yet all along knowing that he was fundamentally unwell and desperately needed help? Richard wasn’t himself and maybe never had been.

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” Melville wrote in Moby-Dick. “All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realise the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.”

There’s no such thing as a smooth path when you’ve got a major mood disorder. I brought this up with my psychiatrist the last time I saw him. I asked whether I might taper off the tablet that I’ve swallowed for 22 years—the one that dulls my highs and tempers my lows, and without which my two-decade domestic partnership would have dissolved long ago. He looked up in alarm, smiled ruefully, shook his head, and said, “No.”

Another cast, another drift, but this time a tremor commuted down the line and into my hand. Something quite alive had taken the fly. A flash of silver, the cicada-like stridulating of the reel, and then I was cupping the quivering belly of a very small and very hungry fish. A brook trout. I unhooked it, relaxed my palm, and let it go.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Brad Rassler