Hard-earned wisdom found in author's stories of death


By David R. Dow
Published by Twelve Books, $25

Unlike David Dow's previous memoir, The Autobiography of an Execution, which focused solely upon the noted appellate attorney's death penalty work, his engaging new memoir, Things I've Learned from Dying, dispenses wisdom gleaned from observing the deaths of his father-in-law, Peter; Texas death row prisoner Eddie Waterman; and his dog Winona.

Dow seamlessly weaves these narratives, careful to give each figure his or her due. It is Peter, though, who may intrigue and challenge readers most. He receives a death sentence when melanoma metastasizes throughout his body.

Peter's intelligence shines through in his unfiltered, unsentimental letters to Dow. "There's neither dishonor nor shame," Peter writes, "in recognizing the jig is up so others can live out the rest of their lives in joy." He also believes "remaining alive is not worth every price," but his daughter Katya believes Peter should exhaust all options. Peter submits to another round of chemotherapy, "because Katya persuaded me the part of my life I own is exceeded by the sum of what others own."

Peter's experience informs his philosophical exchanges with Dow over the Waterman case. "There is something worse than dying a slow death before you are ready to die. It is to die with regret." Then he says, "I understand why you want to save this man."

Waterman was on Texas' death row for the murder of 84-year-old Lucy McClain during a robbery in Dallas. He shot McClain after his co-defendant, Harold Johnson, first shot her. The fact that Johnson's bullet killed McClain became critical to Dow's team at the Texas Innocence Network's appeal on Waterman's behalf.

The network attorneys faced a daunting challenge and incredibly long odds because there were five Texas Appellate Court judges, Dow writes, "who believed it was perfectly okay to execute someone whose trial lawyer had slept through the proceedings." One of these judges would hear Waterman's appeal.

Waterman's sister Hattie, in Nacogdoches, Texas, confirmed what Dow had heard about his client. When Waterman was 6 years old, his mother, high on PCP and vodka, tried to kill Waterman with a knife. It is a backstory typical of many on death row, and one that, Dow writes, makes him think "the world is completely beyond our capacity to change."

Because Waterman was only 6 when the incident occurred, Dow questions if Waterman actually remembered it. "Sir," Waterman says, "that's something you don't forget."

The way network attorneys indefatigably make every argument and interview every person to help Waterman will win over even cynical readers. Attorneys interview Sgt. Wendell Peterson with the Galveston County Sheriff's Department, one of Waterman's former prison guards. Peterson believes "most of them ride the needle" -- using a metaphor for life on death row -- "would kill you for your shoes." But in the case of Waterman, Peterson says, if he "got out, I'd hire him to be my hand, trust him to run the place [his ranch] without me."

Peterson's affidavit bolsters the attorneys' argument: Waterman doesn't deserve to die because he isn't dangerous. This and other character witnesses may persuade many readers that justice wasn't served in Waterman's case, but these testimonies carried little weight in Texas' courts.

Amid balancing the Waterman case and coping with Peter's demise, Dow simultaneously contends with the sudden demise of his beloved Doberman, Winona. Winona intuits how to keep the family out of harm's way and fiercely protects Dow's young son, Lincoln. Peter also develops a bond with Winona when the outdoorsman takes Winona on hikes. When Winona's arthritis worsens, Dow regrets agreeing to use Metacam to treat it. In time, the drug engendered the liver cancer that precipitates her decline.

Dow's rich, substantial, clear-eyed reflections about what he learns from the ugliness, darkness, pain and hardship of living intimately with death form the book's core. "What they've done is lose their own families and destroy another," Dow writes about the persons he defends, challenging the tendency of some to sentimentalize death row prisoners' hard-luck histories.

References to Cormac McCarthy and the poet A.R. Ammons, among other literary allusions, enhance Dow's reflections, and his terse style serves him well. He memorably describes Waterman's father's teeth as "the color of a root beer float," and a prosecuting attorney as "built like a low-slung ranch-style house from the 1950s."

While not disparaging the author's bond with Winona, readers who question the justifiability of "an abdominal ultrasound, a fecal exam, a urinalysis, and a complete blood test" to save a dog may not warm to Things I've Learned From Dying in the same way as those who share Dow's attitudes might. Nonetheless, this memoir will profit all who welcome the hard-earned wisdom behind this author's challenge and provocation.

[Chris Byrd has been involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty for 30 years, including four years in Texas, where he helped organize the Texans Against State Killing march in 1991.]

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