Post and Courier
August 2, 2014

Review: 'Things I've Learned from Dying' raises critical issues about death

Posted: 04/20/2014 12:01 a.m.


By Jennifer Berry Hawes

THINGS I'VE LEARNED FROM DYING: A Book About Life. By David R. Dow. Twelve Books. 288 pages. $25.



Death is part of David R. Dow's daily life. An attorney who represents death-row inmates during their state and federal appeals, he represents clients facing the ultimate punishment, and, the reality is, most get executed.

Yet, in this insightful memoir, Dow weaves together three very personal and tragic stories that raise questions about who should make final decisions about life and death and at what point lives have lost the essence of their value.

In the three stories, Dow's beloved father-in-law, a smart and adventurous soul, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dow's beloved dog suffers sudden and inexplicable liver failure. And he takes on client Eddie Waterman, convicted as a young man of killing an elderly woman (who, it turns out, already was dead when he shot her). However, while incarcerated, Waterman has become a man of far better character than many people who remain free and alive.

Dow founded and directs the Texas Innocence Network. He has represented more than 100 inmates on death row during their appeals, experiences he wrote about in his previous book, "The Autobiography of an Execution," a 2010 National Book Critics Circle award finalist.

In his newest release, Dow uses Waterman's compelling story to question the purpose of executing a man who has become a model prisoner and, in fact, a model man. Waterman is repentant and kind. Prison guards even step up to describe the inmate's character.

Yes, he committed a brutal act. But Waterman also grew up with a drug-addicted mother who was sent to a psychiatric institution after chasing down a 6-year-old Waterman with a butcher knife when the boy called police. Waterman's father basically abandons the boy, so the streets take him in.

This is where Dow's skillfully written narrative can make even death penalty supporters pause. He does not make excuses for society's most brutal murderers. Instead, he writes as someone who has seen where the court system fails to consider condemned inmates, and their legal arguments, as individuals.

Waterman's case begs the question: Who should be responsible for deciding when and how a life ends? The state of Texas (or any other)?

The same question can be asked regarding Dow's father-in-law who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a diagnosis that traumatizes his family. In a death-defying culture, do loves ones' desires for a person to live override that person's desire not to suffer? And whose suffering is more important: the sick person's, or the family members who will be left behind to deal with the grave loss?

The older man wants to lives his final days, shorter though they may be, with as much zeal as he lived his previous years 60-plus years. He wants to measure his days in quality, not quantity.

However, Dow's wife, Katya, and her mother love the man immensely and beg him, cajole him even, into withstanding the torture that can be cancer treatment so he might live longer.

So, he does, only to face the fate he hadn't wanted in the first place: to die after spending much of his final days suffering.

Interestingly, the question of dying, and who should decide when to hasten, prolong or inflict it, ends with the family's beloved dog, Winona. As the other storylines unfold, she is suffering liver failure due to causes her veterinarian cannot pinpoint.

In the end, when Dow decides to euthanize her, he is left to ponder whether he acted too hastily. Did he do so to reduce the dog's suffering, or his own?

A bitingly insightful writer, Dow presents huge questions about death that we all will face as we reach a point at which medicine cannot save us.

The weight of these questions eases with Dow's interjection of irreverent dialogue with his son, dinners with his wife and a penchant for strong and pricey drinks. He comes across as smart and acerbic but also tormented and complex as he wrestles with the loss of people he so highly values.

The book also includes several writings by Dow's father-in-law that allow readers to see these questions from the viewpoint of the dying.

At the heart of facing death in a death-defying culture sits the dilemma of when it's better to live longer or to live better.

Yet, the reality Dow lays out is that as we spend millions on life-prolonging medical treatments - and ask our seriously ill loved ones to suffer through them - we are seeking to save lives that cannot be saved, even as we take lives that could.



Reviewer Jennifer Berry Hawes is a feature writer at The Post and Courier.