December 12, 2013

What death teaches us about life

By David R. Dow
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David R. Dow has spent his life dealing with death. He is an attorney who specializes in death penalty issues as a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. He also founded the Texas Innocence Network, which has represented more than 100 death row inmates. Dow picked a good place to practice: Texas has long been the top state for executions.

When you spend your time filing court appeals and clemency petitions for death row inmates—and almost always losing—you learn to embrace life. Things I’ve Learned From Dying, Dow’s latest book, is a guidebook for living life to the fullest. Dow likes to drink, smoke cigars and kayak when the Gulf Coast waves kick up in Galveston. He also embraces the love of his wife, Katya, his son, Lincoln, and their dog, Winona.

Witnessing the execution of a steady stream of clients also has a way of hardening you to death, Dow writes. But the author’s perspective on death suddenly changes when his father-in-law, Peter, is diagnosed with cancer. Meanwhile, Winona, a dog that has been at Dow’s side for almost 13 years, suddenly becomes ill. At the same time, Dow is filing appeals to stop the execution of Eddie Waterman, who was convicted of shooting a man during a home burglary.

Dow lends his perspective on these three lives, and death suddenly evolves from being purely professional to profoundly personal. Dow is fond of his father-in-law, Peter, with whom he has spent countless hours kayaking and hiking. And the sorrow experienced by Dow’s wife makes Peter’s deteriorating condition even more painful. Dow admits that Winona’s declining health is even more heart-wrenching because she has always been at his side, and she is protective of his son. The sadness experienced by 8-year-old Lincoln makes Winona’s downslide more difficult. Conversely, Dow feels little sympathy toward the death row inmate. Ironically, the convict’s fate is the only one that Dow has any opportunity to change.

Things I’ve Learned From Dying would seem like a depressing book to read. But Dow’s sardonic, yet humorous writing softens the edges. And Dow is a gifted author, writing in short, staccato sentences that keep the prose moving with rhythm and pace. Indeed, Things I’ve Learned From Dying really is a book about life, and how one man who deals with death learns to appreciate living.

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