Interview with playwright Eric Coble, whose boobytrapped Brooklyn mother teaches a lesson on dying with grace

In Eric Coble’s new play, Velocity of Autumn, an aging mother rebels against her children’s decision to place her in a nursing home.

In Eric Coble’s new play, Velocity of Autumn, an aging mother rebels against her children’s decision to place her in a nursing home.

Eric Coble has written and produced plays on Edgar Allen Poe, Pinocchio and Pecos Bill; his latest, Velocity of Autumn, is about an elderly Brooklyn woman who boobytraps her apartment with firebombs to prevent her children from sending her to a nursing home.

The play debuted in Boise last month and will show at Cleveland’s Beck Center for the Arts next spring. Digital Dying spoke with Coble about Velocity and just how to die a graceful death.

Describe Velocity of Autumn?

There is a woman named Alexandra, about 79 years old, living alone in Brooklyn; she is beginning to falter, mentally and physically. Her husband has died and two of her adult children tell her it’s time to go to a nursing home. She barricades herself in her home and uses her dead husband’s photo developing fluid to set up fire bombs around every possible entrance; the windows, the doors. She says, ‘If anyone comes in after me, I’m taking the whole place out.’ Her youngest son, the black sheep of the family, comes home through the one window he knew she wouldn’t have barricaded. The two of them are in that room for 70 minutes, no entrances or exits or light shifts or anything. They don’t leave until she comes to a solution, or she blows the place up.

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Alexandra wants to die a ‘natural death’, why is that important?

Among other species we are the only ones that hoard stuff right up until the very end. Most animals when they realize they are coming to the end of their life try to crawl off someplace to die. Recently, we had a family cat here in Cleveland that wandered off toward the end. He had crawled under this porch like five houses away. We coaxed him out and he lay on the grass and kids pet him but he just wanted to lie there by himself it seemed to me. That image stuck with me. Alexandra wants to go out while looking out her window at this tree she has had a great relationship with. She just loves watching the way this tree changes with the season. That’s her idea of a graceful death.

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What’s the most graceful way to die?

I think we come into life with very little identity and spend the first 20 years formulating who we are, we spend 20 years saying, ‘I am the kind of person who does this,’ then we spend 20 years doing that; we spend the last 20 years letting go. Letting go of the possessions, letting go of the attitude, letting go of the opinions; it seems to me the more spaciousness we can have near the end the easier death can be. But I don’t think there is a right or wrong way. To some people, dying gracefully might mean being alone and diving off a 500 foot cliff and having that one last utter sensation one was never able to feel in life. We won’t all have the choice, but I think we can set in motion the idea of being intentional as we come to the end of life.

You were raised on Navajo and Ute Indian Reservations, how does that affect your plays and your views on death?

It wasn’t until college I realized there was something really exotic about growing up on a reservation. With the Navajo, to get to school we packed onto a bus and drove on a one lane road over a rickety bridge that spanned a canyon. I keep going back to certain imagery from there in my plays, coyotes for example, or sandpainting, which is discussed in Velocity of Autumn. The Navajo make sandpaintings with sand colored blue, red and green; they sprinkle it by hand, almost one grain at a time, creating these very beautiful and elaborate pictures. The sand paintings are meant to be remembered for that moment, then destroyed; they sweep them away with a broom. I always found that metaphor striking in terms of death and the end of life, are we meant to have any importance beyond the particular moment? It’s the sense that nothing is made to last, nothing is permanent. It’s a very Buddhist or Navajo idea, we try to make it last, it may last for a while, but it will not last forever, it will be gone at some point.

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Are we doing a good job at dying gracefully in America?

There seems to be a growing willingness to accommodate the idea that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a patient. There is an increasing willingness of hospitals to let people die at home. And more and more people are going the hospice route, I view that as a pretty graceful way to go. A few years ago I collected oral histories for Ohio’s bicentennial, there was a story a man told me about his grandfather. He had a stroke while working in the fields. The doctor said he wasn’t going to make it and told people to come pay their final respects. So that evening all these neighbors he’d known all his life came in, they talked through the night, telling stories, just this group of men with this old man. They held him emotionally and talked him out of the world, I can’t think of a better way to go out.

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