Things I've Learned from Dying: A Book About Life
The premature death of a beloved husband, father and grandfather after a fitful struggle against cancer; the passing of an aged dog; and the execution of a convicted murderer on Texas’s death row on the surface couldn’t be more different events. And yet, as David R. Dow shows in this deeply felt memoir, the universality that links these circumstances ultimately overwhelms their differences. Displaying the same brilliant storytelling skills that earned his memoir, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EXECUTION, a National Book Critics Circle nomination, Dow succeeds, above all, in evoking both our sympathy and our understanding.
Dow, who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center and founded the Texas Innocence Network, has been fighting on behalf of death row inmates for more than 20 years. Since 2010 there have been 171 executions in the United States, with Texas responsible for just over one-third of them. A lawyer doing what Dow does there obviously faces formidable odds. Here, he tells the story of Eddie Waterman, sentenced to death for his role in the murder of an elderly woman in her bed. Now, eight years later, the 27-year-old Waterman watches with grim fatalism as his appeal windows slam shut, one by one. Dow deftly explains the complex, often daring legal strategies employed by death penalty lawyers to keep their clients alive, maneuvers he must deploy before judges he fearlessly denounces as “bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on their way to getting there.” He’s no less adamant that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, and that “anybody who tells you the criminal justice system is an even playing field has no idea what she’s talking about.”
"THINGS I’VE LEARNED FROM DYING is a raw, honest book that tempers those qualities with love and tenderness."
Peter, Dow’s father-in-law, is a strong-minded chemist who shares a love of the outdoors with Dow. He retires at age 58, but his carefully constructed 20-year plan quickly is shattered by the diagnosis of a Stage IIIc or IV melanoma, so advanced because of his refusal to seek treatment for nearly six months. Dow offers generous helpings of Peter’s correspondence and of their frank conversations to capture Peter’s ambivalence, in the face of his daughter and Dow’s wife Katya’s fierce determination to persuade him to pursue chemotherapy and surgery that may prolong his life but are likely to diminish its quality.
And then there’s Winona, the Dow family’s 13-year-old Doberman, most beloved by Dow’s young son, Lincoln. When medication that’s administered to relieve her slowly worsening arthritis probably is responsible for the rapid onset of kidney failure, we share the family’s sense of helplessness as they confront her imminent death.
Dow brings to the telling of these stories prose that gains a slowly accumulating power from its spareness and candor. Yet what makes his writing most distinctive is a subtly aphoristic style. His frequent disclosures of “one thing I’ve learned” drop deftly into a paragraph, where they detonate, like verbal hand grenades. “One thing I’ve learned,” he writes, “is that there is a time to be silent and there’s a time to hold nothing back. What I might not have learned is which is when.” In words that could apply equally to the dying Peter or one of Dow's doomed clients, he observes that “there are times you have to let the people you love hold on to hope the math rules out.”
With equal subtlety, he exposes the parallels between the final months of his father-in-law’s fight against cancer and the plight of death row inmates. There are references in both cases to “staging,” and the recognition that the terminally ill patient and condemned killer both face a definite date with death, the one only slightly more certain than the other. Peter believes there is “an advantage to knowing when you are going to die,” so you can “circle the date on your calendar and not leave tasks undone.” Another inmate named Starret, whom Dow agrees to represent in the midst of Waterman’s fight, abandons the status of “volunteer” (a convict who decides not to oppose execution), and to renew his appeal, mirroring Peter’s vacillation over his course of treatment.
There are moments in this memoir when the only proper response is to hold one’s breath. Dow takes us inside the claustrophobic world in which court-appointed lawyers face monumental odds to save their clients from execution. He’s no bleeding heart (“people who defend murderers aren’t necessarily opposed to killing”), describing how he personally would have dealt with the two men who murdered the wife and daughters of a prominent Connecticut doctor in a highly publicized case several years ago. But in recounting Waterman’s story, he raises troubling questions about our criminal justice system’s ability to comprehend what it means for a man facing execution to rehabilitate and redeem himself.
THINGS I’VE LEARNED FROM DYING is a raw, honest book that tempers those qualities with love and tenderness. For all his outward self-assurance, Dow is a man who’s unafraid to acknowledge the limits of his powers, whether the implacable opponent is disease or a mechanistic legal system. And he’s a writer whose talents are more than worthy of the lives whose final days he captures so movingly in these pages.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 8, 2014