In late January 2021, Eli Timoner was hospitalized with difficulty breathing. It had been a long, slow physical decline. The 92-year-old entrepreneur and father of three had been paralyzed for 40 years after a stroke when he was 53; during the isolation of Covid, his mobility worsened, putting a great strain on his wife of 55 years, Elissa. Now, due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure, he was permanently bedridden. Reached by phone in the hospital by his daughter, the documentary film-maker Ondi Timoner, Eli reports that he feels finished, is “just waiting to die”.
“Waiting to die?! I thought you were waiting to see me today,” a shocked Ondi responds. But Eli is adamant: “If they could give me goodbye powder, I’d take it.”
Last Flight Home, Ondi’s remarkable documentary on her father’s final days and medically assisted death, begins from this point of certainty. To be bedridden meant a transfer to a full-time care facility, which was a non-starter for Eli. He was in constant pain, tired, done. Cut to, less than five minutes into the film: a Zoom call between hospital-bound Eli, Elissa, Ondi and her siblings Rachel and David, discussing the possibility of medically assisted suicide. The conversation is the film in miniature: at once profound and practical, wry and devastating. A rare example of how to approach death collectively. How to do it legally, according to California’s End of Life Option Act. (There are 10 states that allow for medical aid in dying, in addition to Washington DC.) How to do it spiritually, as a family losing their patriarch, best friend, husband, father, grandfather. How to answer your loved one when, faced with terminal illness, they say: “I want it to end. Right away.”
The Timoners were supportive of Eli’s decision for medically assisted death, though confused on how to enact it, let alone live it for the state-mandated 15-day waiting period between evaluation by a physician and the administration of the lethal prescription. “I had no idea. It was like walking on the moon in my parents’ living room,” Ondi told the Guardian.
Last Flight Home captures a transitional phase – tasks to do, words to say, love to be honored and consecrated. There are final Zoom farewells, sentimental and largely upbeat, peppered with anecdotes from Eli’s time as founder and CEO of Air Florida in the 1970s and his lifetime as a friend. A follow-up appointment via Facetime with a different physician to confirm, in compliance with California law, the first doctor’s approval of the prescription. A meeting with a death doula, to whom Eli expressed his fear of being placed in a coffin while still alive. Practice drinking a smoothie with a straw, to ensure that Eli can, again in compliance with state law, take the medicine by his own hand. Conversations about life, about feelings of shame and gratitude, about funeral plans, old photos, monthly utility bills.
“There’s an unreality to it all,” Elissa, mostly camped on the living room couch, says in the film. “We’re just putting one foot in front of the other.”
The surreality, a mixture of familial candor and delicateness, was “a position that a lot of people find themselves in, and families find themselves in, because our culture doesn’t really set us up – we don’t talk about death,” Ondi said. “We’re really, really scared of it.”
Before her father’s decision, Ondi hadn’t really faced it, either. “I was panicking” at the beginning, she said, initially unaware of California’s End of Life Option Act. She began recording her father’s phone calls from the hospital. “I knew it was going to be imminent. I was just horrified at the concept that he would die as degraded as he felt. And he just felt like there was nothing for him here any more, and that no one cared besides the four of us, and that his life had really added up to a failure”, in large part due to material losses as a result of his disability. (Eli Timoner was forced out of his company following his stroke before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.)
“Getting to bring him home and put his bed right in the middle of the living room and then surround him with love was the greatest gift,” Ondi said. “I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t have that chance. He was my best friend, my pal, and I was devastated, absolutely devastated.”
The cameras started rolling soon after, first as an archive rather than as a film. “I do a lot of recording, and my family is used to that, so no one knew that I was making a film, including me,” said Ondi. “I was desperate to bottle him up somehow.”
Filming such sensitive, raw moments was a family agreement. Eli, ever supportive of Ondi’s work, was on board with any future project to be made from the cameras installed throughout his living room. (Ondi also edited the film.) So were Elissa and David. Rachel, who has supported many people and their loved ones at the end of life as a senior rabbi with Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, was more wary.
“It felt so private,” she said. “Even though I don’t shy away from talking about death and having these conversations, it did feel like it was really just for us and not for anybody else’s eyes.
“Part of what’s important about the dying process is that it be unmediated,” she added. “That it could be just private.” She came around slowly first to the filming, then to its public distribution. Her father was supportive, first of all, as was her mother, who found comfort in the footage after Eli’s death, watching it nightly for months. “If my mother is getting solace from this, then that’s by far the most important thing,” said Rachel. And then there was the effect on audiences. Viewers of the film left the theater “in awe about life, about love, about that if we are courageous enough to turn toward death, we turn toward life,” she said. “That to me feels like a really holy purpose. And I relinquished any concerns I had.”
Plus, she said, it could help influence other states to adopt compassionate choice laws. The film is adamantly for compassionate choice, which is still working through the New York legislature – “If you’re terminally ill, you should have the right to terminate your life if you don’t want to suffer any more. It’s a right over our own bodies,” said Ondi.
But the film does not shy away from discomfort with the process as it currently exists. The administration of medicine is an ordeal of choreography and solemnity, trying to balance saying the last goodbye with specific, critical instructions; the final mixture must be consumed in full in under two minutes. That countdown, in which Eli, held by children and grandchildren, struggles to swallow the bitter poison against the clock and says “I can’t” is edited down but still feels 10 minutes long, a stressful race against time.
“It felt like an obstacle course,” said Ondi. “There’s got to be a more humane way to do this … We were surrounding him and he was going to be this really peaceful journey out, and to see him saying ‘I can’t stand it’” – referring to the taste of the final medicine – “that that was his last experience on earth was really sad to me.”
But in the end, peace. Eli died shortly after finishing the medicine, on March 3, 2021. Until then, he comes across as compassionate, generous, funny. “This film is exactly who he was,” said Rachel. “He just paid attention to everybody else, and rooted everybody else on,” said Ondi. “And I just aspire to have one-tenth of that generosity and grace.”
A final act of generosity: the willingness to speak openly about death, to offer a model of how one could embrace the end. “I hope people get inspired to face the fact that they and everyone they love is going to die,” said Rachel of the film. “And if they have the courage to talk about it, and to plan for it a little bit, that they have a real chance to have a beautiful, good death. And that that is a way for them to seize their lives. It is a way for them to embrace their living.”