Intimations of mortality
American lawyer pens thoughtful memoir about death, dying and loss
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.