The fact that we’re all going to die can be simultaneously comforting and terrifying. On the one hand, death’s inevitable arrival allows us to enjoy life without taking any of it too seriously. If, for instance, we say or do something awful, we can rest knowing that we won’t have to live with our poor decisions forever. On the other hand, life is often pleasurable, and even the least desirable circumstances contain undeniable beauty. Why must life end, we ask, and why is its termination out of our control?
David R. Dow grapples with this timeless question in Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life. A professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, Dow brings his unique perspective as a defense attorney for death row inmates to the issue. Like his critically acclaimed memoir The Autobiography of an Execution, this book skillfully weaves the personal with the political.
In the book, Dow tells three true stories of death. The first focuses on his father-in-law Peter’s battle with illness, the second centers on the slow decay of Winona, the family dog, and the third recreates the last days of Waterman, one of Dow’s death row clients. Dow wisely doesn’t spell it out, but it soon becomes clear that each story forces Dow and other individuals to come to terms with life’s unpredictability. So much that happens to Peter, Winona, and Waterman is beyond Dow’s control, and despite his efforts, he cannot alter the course of events.
The stories of Peter and Winona, while specific to Dow’s experience, are relatable to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. The story of Waterman, however, brings the average reader to uncharted territory, as Dow asks us to feel compassion for a criminal in a Texas death row facility.
It is intellectually dubious to discuss Dow’s book without engaging in debates about the death penalty. Waterman’s story is included to contrast the blessed lives that Peter and Winona have lived. Their passing is heartbreaking, but Waterman’s is on a different level precisely because governmental officials make the decision to end his life. The tragedy, of course, is that Dow feels like he is helpless in a system that sentences criminals to death.
In many ways, the American justice system in general and the Texas court system in particular are like a cancer, and as Dow represents his death row clients, he is faced with the fact that his purpose isn’t to save their lives but to make their deaths more bearable. In a conversation with Waterman’s pen pal, Dow explains, “I said we would not hear from the Supreme Court until less than an hour before the execution. She asked why they take so long. I said, Because this is a game to them. Because they are assholes. Because they pretend like there is not a human life at stake while they claim there is nothing they can do.” (241)
Dow’s articulation of his futile attempts to save Waterman’s life is harrowing and turns his book into an urgent plea for sanity. Surely there is another way to punish criminals without resorting to an expensive death penalty system. In the video below, Dow offers a useful solution. Especially significant is Dow’s explanation of the selection process and how problematic it appears to be. Not only does it cost the state of Texas more money to try citizens in death penalty cases than normal criminal cases, there’s also an arbitrary selection process going on in which some murderers receive life in prison and others are placed on death row. Dow’s point, to put it simply, is that no individual, regardless of stature or status, should be given the power to make such a decision.
Things I’ve Learned from Dying is a forceful reminder that there are many Watermans in this country whose voices remain unheard, and who don’t receive the same love as Peter or Winona in their final hours. These individuals are branded with criminal records at an early age, and a hierarchy is then put in place that legalizes their ostracism from the rest of society. Fortunately, Dow is compassionate enough to humanize the world’s most hated people and show them love.
Dow’s prose is accessible enough to appeal to a diverse readership and poetic enough to restore your faith in the delicate beauty of words. There are a plethora of memoirs and true crime stories to read, but few of them are as eloquent and passionate as this one. In 50 years or so when the literary canon is once again revised, Things I’ve Learned from Dying will have rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of 21st century American literature.