By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2022)
Don’t nobody know what I’m talking about
I’ve got my own life to live
I’m the one that’s gonna have to die
When it’s time for me to die
So let me live my life
The way I want to, yeah
Sing on brother
Play on drummer
-Jimi Hendrix, “If 6 was 9”
In February 2017, my dear mother passed away at 86. While she had been weathering a plethora of health issues for years, the final straw (pancreatic cancer) had been diagnosed by her doctor only several weeks prior. When she called to give me the news, I told her I would immediately book a flight to Ohio. “I don’t want you to be here yet,” she told me. I was taken aback; but knowing how headstrong she was, I figured she had her reasons.
Unfortunately, her turn for the worse was so sudden that my flight (prompted by a call from my brother) turned into a grim race; my plane was on final approach to Canton-Akron Airport when she slipped away (I arrived at her bedside an hour after she had died). And yes, that was hard…the one time I wish I had not have listened to my mother.
Since I obviously wasn’t present during (what turned out to be) her last days, I asked my brother if she had any “final words”. At first, he chuckled a little through the tears, recounting that a day or two before, she had turned to him at one point and said “I wish I had some wisdom to impart. But I don’t.” I laughed (Jewish fatalism-it’s a cultural thing).
Then, he remembered something. The hospice room where my mother spent her last week had a picture window facing west, with a view of a field, a pond, a small stand of trees, and an occasional deer sighting. Two days before she was gone, my mother, my father, and my brothers were quietly enjoying this pastoral scene with the bonus of a lovely sunset. My mother broke the silence with just three words: “Trees are important.”
What did she mean? Indeed, trees are important. They are, in a literal sense, the lungs of the Earth. As a metaphor, I must consider the foundational significance that The Tree of Life holds in Judaism. Was she “imparting wisdom” after all? Had she, at the end of her journey, reached what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “cleansing moment of clarity”? It may not be quite as cinematic as, say…“Rosebud,” but it’s a kissin’ cousin to a Zen koan.
A year and-a-half later I was once again on a flight to Ohio in a race to beat the Reaper, hoping to make it to my father’s bedside before he slipped into the abyss. This time I “made it.” He couldn’t move but was still conscious. As I grabbed his hand and leaned in close so he could see me, his eyes noticeably brightened. He said one word: “hug.” I obliged. For the next 24 hours, he slipped in and out of consciousness (like my mother, he had requested “do not resuscitate”) and I was holding his hand when he passed away.
Frankly, having now experienced both scenarios (“just missing it” and getting there “just in time”), I cannot really say one is “better” than the other. It is never easy losing a parent. I suppose I can take solace in the fact that in each case, my mother and father were surrounded by family, and slipped away “peacefully” (whatever that means…at least it appeared to be a“peaceful” transition to me when my father took his last breath).
There are worse ways to go.
Don’t get hot
‘Cause man, you’ve got
Some high times ahead
Take it slow
You can live it up and die in bed
-from “Cool” (West Side Story), by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein
It was inevitable that I would begin to ruminate about my parents, the importance of trees (and hugs) as I watched Ondi Timoner’s deeply moving documentary Last Flight Home. “I just want peace,” her bedridden 92-year-old father assures his family in the first reel, confirming a decision to end his life with medical assistance.
So begins the countdown of days, hours, and minutes remaining in Eli Timoner’s journey. In the hands of a less compassionate (or personally invested) filmmaker, this would seem a morbid, even macabre exercise…but it is one of the most life-affirming films that I have seen in years.
Speaking of trees, there’s a moment when Ondi’s sister (a rabbi) quotes from the Talmud: “May your saplings be like you.” Ondi says to her father, “You did all right with the ‘saplings’, don’t you think?” Her father quips, “Bunch of saps.” It’s those “laughter through the tears” moments that keep you engaged, despite the very heavy undercurrents.
Eli Timoner’s life was a roller-coaster of triumph and tragedy. A wildly successful entrepreneur and philanthropist (he founded Air Florida in the 1970s), he counted movers and shakers like Joe Biden among his friends.
Then, in 1982 (at age 53) he suffered a stroke that caused debilitating health issues for the remainder of his life. By 1984, Air Florida was in bankruptcy (the company had begun a downward slide following the 1982 crash of an Air Florida jet into the Potomac River in Washington D.C.). He lost millions.
The director doesn’t dwell too long on her father’s biography, but uses masterful intercutting of archival news stories, family home movies, and the task at hand to illustrate how it was the constants of Eli’s makeup as a human being…his compassion for others, unwavering love and devotion to family, and infectious joie de vivre that got him though thick and thin in both his professional and personal life (you get what you give).
In fact, the nonagenarian Eli is so sharp, so sound of mind, and surrounded by so much love and support it begs a question: Why end it? If the primary consideration is physical debilitation, how about (for sake of argument) someone like Stephen Hawking? His physiological life was far from a picnic; but what he was able to achieve and contribute to the world right up until the end of his life with just his sheer thinking power boggles the mind.
Of course, Timoner is under no obligation to make her film a polemic on aid-in-dying laws or a treatise of the ethics involved. Rather, her film is an act of love, of sharing something so intimate that at times you feel like you’re intruding on this family’s privacy. But as she obviously made her film with full consent of all involved, there is nothing exploitative or sensationalist about its execution. As my mother said, “trees are important” and Last Flight Home left me with an assuring feeling that my loving parents did all right with the saplings.