‘Last Flight Home’: Dad shares wisdom after choosing medically-assisted suicide

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney

“He was just so weighed down, I think, by feeling like he was stuck, and he couldn't do anything to help his family — when actually he was providing us with everything, the unconditional love, and the humor and wisdom,” film director Ondi Timoner tells KCRW of her dad. Credit: YouTube.

Eli Timoner, who founded one of the fastest-growing airlines in the 1970s called Air Florida, had a picture-perfect life, a successful business, an adoring wife and three kids. Then at age 53, he had a stroke when getting a massage. It left him disabled. He lost his company and most of his money. He never recovered physically or financially. At age 92, he was in such poor health that he wanted to die.

He asked his daughter Ondi to help. In California, an adult diagnosed with a terminal disease, who meets certain requirements, can request aid-in-dying drugs. That’s what Eli Timoner did.

Ondi Timoner then documented her father’s last days. “Last Flight Home” is a remarkable veritè view of friends and family saying goodbye to their beloved husband, friend, father, and grandfather. Timoner is a two-time winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize – for her films “Dig!” and “We Live in Public.” 

Ondi Timoner says she was shocked when her dad suggested using the aid-in-dying drugs. 

“He was so independent and … just determined not to be a burden that he would get himself to the bathroom, take sometimes 30 minutes, and sometimes he would fall in that attempt. So it just became untenable. … Doorways weren't big enough to fit a wheelchair. Just the house couldn't accommodate him being cared for at home anymore. So it was just too much for him to bear. And he said at one point, ‘I've served my sentence,’” she recalls. 

She says making this film wasn’t a choice, but an instinct and urge. It was also driven by the fear of losing his voice and personality, and the memory of him. Her therapist told her, “If you feel like you have to film, you need to film.” She also asked her father about it, and he said she was on the right track. 

“This film was sort of his final gift to our family and to me. We weren't making a movie. … The cameras were secondary. They were just documenting dads so we could bottle them up somehow. That was the idea.”

Her sister had asked her to make a video for the memorial they held three weeks after his death. “I don't think if she had not asked me that, I would have made this movie. Because I don't know that I would have opened the footage, I think I probably would have just put it on a hard drive. It was too painful, I would have thought. But it was the most beautiful experience to look through this footage.”

Timoner shares that her dad always prioritized their family, but he never expressed shame of being unable to take care of them — because he was driven out of his airline company — until they made the film.

They actually said, ‘What do you think Wall Street will think of a cripple running this airline? We'll lose everything, you have to get out.’ So he was … forced to resign. And the person who was left in charge drove the airline into the ground a year and a half later.” 

During his final days, Timoner set up Zoom calls so people could tell her dad what he meant to them. “He took all that in and that allowed him to have a foundation of feeling very, very loved — to be able to even unpack that shame.”

She adds, “He was just so weighed down, I think, by feeling like he was stuck, and he couldn't do anything to help his family — when actually he was providing us with everything, the unconditional love, and the humor and wisdom. … Thankfully, I think he started to absorb that and understand that, but he died.”

She says he expressed love throughout his life. For example, when her sister came out as a lesbian around 1989, there was little education about LGBTQ issues, but he reached for her hand and said, “I’m so glad you found love.” 

She adds, “He didn't try to be good. He just was good. … But I think as he neared the end, the veil I discovered between life and death, I think lifts as one dies. And there was a lot of wisdom coming from him from a deep, deep place. … When his grandson … sat down, he said, ‘I just want to ask, how should I live?’ … Then [dad] just said, ‘Respect those you don't know, and love the ones you do.’ And this man is a great role model. I'm so lucky to have him as a dad.”