In­ti­ma­tions of mor­tal­ity

Amer­i­can lawyer pens thought­ful mem­oir about death, dy­ing and loss

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Julie Kent­ner

RIGHT from the open­ing para­graph, Amer­i­can death-penalty lawyer, pro­fes­sor and au­thor David R. Dow pulls no punches in this thought­ful mem­oir about mor­tal­ity. “Ev­ery life is dif­fer­ent, but ev­ery death is the same,” Dow writes in Things I’ve Learned From Dy­ing. “We live with oth­ers. We die alone. And what is im­por­tant to this story is that the mo­ment we die is not the same as the mo­ment we are per­ceived as dead. Our lives end be­fore oth­ers no­tice, and the time that spans that dis­tance is the in­verse of the grief your loved ones will suf­fer when you leave them be­hind.” Framed by his ex­pe­ri­ences de­fend­ing death-row in­mates, the loss of a beloved fam­ily pet and the can­cer jour­ney of his fa­ther-in-law, Dow’s fas­ci­nat­ing book about death and loss is filled with thought­ful and com­pas­sion­ate ideas about a much-feared and rarely dis­cussed time of life. Dow di­vides the book into three main sec­tions, sim­ply ti­tled Be­gin­nings, Mid­dle and End­ings. He starts by in­tro­duc­ing the sit­u­a­tions and peo­ple that have in­flu­enced and taught him about death and dy­ing. Dow’s fa­ther-in-law, Peter, was di­ag­nosed with a skin melanoma that had metas­ta­sized into his liver. Qui­etly prag­matic and yet im­mensely an­gry at the un­fair­ness of the ill­ness, Peter strug­gled to ac­cept the treat­ment plan his fam­ily pushed him to con­sider. Ed­die Water­man was just 19 when he and two oth­ers broke into 84-year old Lucy McClain’s house in Texas and shot her. He ended up on death row, and Dow was as­signed to be his lawyer as the time came for Water­man’s ex­e­cu­tion. Dow’s well-trained Dober­man, Wi­nona, was his com­pan­ion on many hikes and fiercely loyal to his son, Lin­coln. She was put on pow­er­ful med­i­ca­tions as she got older, which led to liver fail­ure. Dow’s writ­ing it­self is clear and pre­cise, each word cho­sen and placed care­fully to de­scribe, ex­plain and il­lu­mi­nate. For many au­thors, this could lead to a cer­tain cold­ness in tone, but there is strong emo­tion here — Dow beau­ti­fully ex­presses love and pain in equal mea­sure. In the mid­dle, he rem­i­nisces about kayak­ing and wind­surf­ing trips taken with Peter, the sad vis­its to what re­mained of Water­man’s fam­ily and how he trained his dog to swim. He’s never preachy and con­sid­ers mul­ti­ple points of view, yet you know ex­actly where he stands and what he be­lieves. Even though each chap­ter switches fo­cus from one story to another, it’s never abrupt or jar­ring. Dow flows smoothly from one to the next, cap­tur­ing his feel­ings, and bravely shares his grief with the reader. In the end, Dow shares his own per­spec­tives. “It’s best when end­ings are short, or maybe fast is the bet­ter word,” he writes. “There’s greater grief, but in re­turn you get less pain, and much less guilt.” Far from mor­bid or de­press­ing, Things I’ve Learned From Dy­ing is a pow­er­ful, thought-pro­vok­ing look at one man’s ex­pe­ri­ences with emo­tions that af­fect us all.

Julie Kent­ner is a Winnipeg writer.

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