Generally, open discussions about death and dying in the U.S. are awkward at best and ignored at worst. It is often said that a son or daughter truly becomes an adult when they lose one or both parents. Yet, even when a parent has a prolonged illness and the inevitable is near, it remains difficult to accept the fate and to put those feelings and fears into comprehensible words. Sometimes, after a parent has died, surviving family members feel guilty in realizing that there are things they could have expressed to their father or mother before they passed. Often, we wish that we had more time to spend with them or tell them how much we love them.
In late January 2021, when Eli Timoner, who was in his nineties, told his family that he was ready to end his own life, he was living in California, where state legislators had passed the End of Life Option Act six years earlier. His announcement caught his family off guard initially but they also quickly helped facilitate his request. The law, which included a 15-day window for making the request to receive prescribed medications to aid in dying, included many safeguards and was crafted so that the decision was solely within the hands of the terminally ill patient.
His daughter, Ondi Timoner, an award-winning film director who has been no stranger to Sundance audiences, captured the last 15 days of her father’s life in the extraordinarily moving documentary Last Flight Home, which premiered at the festival this week.
The film, which features several generations of the TImoner family, is truly a rare gift for viewers. Working unobtrusively as possible, Timoner captures her mother, siblings, grandchildren, family friends, former associates and the hospice staff as they prepare to say goodbye to the beloved head of the family. The real star though is Eli, who was still cracking jokes, sharing wisdom, reflecting back on the joys and mistakes of his long life and expressing just how proud he was of everyone. When one thinks of a parent as the champion of the family at its largest scope, Eli unmistakably fulfilled every dimension of that role.
Timoner was a true progressive in every sense of the word. In the prime of his career, he enjoyed great success in business. He operated a regional roofing company in Florida during the 1960s and was known for his support of unions. But, union representation also was racially segregated during that time and Timoner saw that his company’s union would be fully integrated. The same consideration for employees carried over when he founded Air Florida in the early 1970s and he supported their efforts to organize. Even decades after he was forced to retire in 1983 as head of the airline he founded, a year after he was paralyzed by a stroke that was accidentally caused by the work of a massage therapist, employees who remembered Eli told him how much they had appreciated him. While his life had changed, his conscientious dedication to these ideals did not waver. An avid fan of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Eli was delighted when his daughter, Rachel, who is a rabbi, arranged for the media personality to record a video for her father.
Ondi Timoner chronicles each of the 15 days leading up to his death on March 3, 2021. Indeed, the pace in the film seems to quicken with each passing day, paralleling what it must have felt like for everyone in the family.
The legal process involved two separate consultations at the beginning and in the middle of the 15-day period including one physician, who was known for not being supportive of such measures. The elder Timoner was fully aware throughout the period and when the day of his death arrived, he was able to take the medications. Later in 2021, California revised the original law, extending its period for another 10 years and loosened some of the restrictions that had prevented some terminally ill patients from using the law as an option. Some patients were so gravely ill that they died during the time they were required to wait between the first and second requests for the medications. Others were too weak or disoriented to sign the final attestation. Thus, the approved revisions shortened the 15 days to just two days and eliminated the need to sign the final attestation.
The film documents the bureaucratic intricacies of the process without allowing it to disrupt the much larger theme at the heart of this deeply moving story. As Eli’s final day approached, the grief also was met with a unique sense of peace. His last flight home was made possible with an immensely gratifying acceptance that the lessons of love, humility, dignity and grace which had guided his ninety-plus years of his earthly existence constituted a legacy that would forever be cherished in the memories of everyone in the family. The profound sense of devotion and loyalty in the family had been made possible by his example. Last Flight Home is an unforgettable documentary of unconditional love and its clarifying capacity for finding some solace at times of loss and grief.
Last Flight Home was fiscally sponsored by the Utah Film Center and a special screening was hosted by Geralyn Dreyfous, who also is cofounder and board chair of the center.