David R. Dow, Things I've Learned From Dying; A Book About Life (New York: Grand Central Press, 2014), 273pp.
David Dow has spent his professional life as an attorney defending death row inmates like Eddie Waterman. Waterman shot an eighty-four-year-old woman in the head — after his buddy had already killed her by a bullet to the temple. He had been in prison for ten years when Dow took his case, one of over a hundred death row cases he has defended. In this memoir, Dow humanizes Waterman so that we see him not just as a nineteen-year-old criminal, but as a person not unlike us in many respects.
Which is to say that for Dow the professional becomes very personal. And even more so in the second narrative strand of this book — his father-in-law's diagnosis of melanoma at the age of fifty-eight. If Waterman and inmates like him battle an irrational penal system ("Sometimes I'm embarrassed to be in this profession."), Peter must negotiate an impersonal medical system. His futile battle with cancer was aggravated by his passive aggressive anger, refusal of treatments, "debilitating sadness," fear, bitterness, and regret. But lucky for Peter, and unlike Waterman, he was surrounded by a loving family that helped him to make his peace.
There's a third death in Dow's story that sounds trite except for those who've experienced something like it — the death of their family dog from liver failure, and how that impacted them, especially their young son. But as the subtitle of his book indicates, Dow wants to learn what death teaches us about life. If you're reading this, then you enjoy the privilege of his insight on the last page, that the living "get another chance." So, he concludes, "don't blow it."