Jack Arends was on a 90-minute car ride to the Washington state capitol in Olympia on Monday, where he planned to cast his Electoral College vote for Joe Biden, when he decided to draft a statement to deliver to those in attendance.
For Arends, it was about more than who would be president — he felt the vote was symbolic of a move toward normalcy and compassion.
It would also likely be one of his final opportunities to speak up.
Later that day, as he choked back tears, Arends told those in the capitol chambers that he was terminally ill.
"[In] November, I was told there is no more medical treatment that can help me,” he told the socially distanced group. "So it was important for me to do this one thing that I could do while I still can."
"Thank you, and God bless our great country," Arends said.
As he finished speaking, voice choking with emotion, he dropped his head into his arms and the room burst into applause.
"As I was reading the statement, many things came to mind about the experience with my family and what it had been like the last four years — it just overcame me," Arends tells PEOPLE of the speech that's since been widely shared online, drawing tens of thousands of viewers.
Arends says that in the hours that followed, he was contacted by countless media outlets, old friends and even his college roommate, who now lives in Canada. Their messages echoed his own.
"I think I said something a lot of people were thinking," Arends says. "People were ready for him [Donald Trump] to go."
Arends joined the Democratic Party in 1999, serving as a precinct committee officer for 20 years. Several years ago, health issues forced him to retire early, though he maintained an active role in state politics.
After gaining support from others in his district of Sonomish County, Arends was selected to serve as a member of the state's Biden electors, a move that put him and 537 others on the forefront of American democracy this week.
The elation over becoming an elector was hedged by insecurity about his health, however.
"I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what," he says. "I thought, I’ve gotta [be an elector] this year or I’m not going to be able to do it at all."
One day after he learned that he had been chosen to vote in the Electoral College for Biden and Kamala Harris, he received a call from his cardiologist.
The news wasn't good. "We have detected some abnormalities with your heart and would like to do a valve replacement," they told him, Arends recalls.
Though the procedure initially seemed successful, complications soon arose.
"On Nov. 9, they said could not operate on what was left, and my condition would ultimately decline to the point that I would die," he says.
But Arends wasn't going to crumble before the end, instead setting out to make a bold statement in his final days.
"It was a combination of wanting to do something tangible, to push back on what's been going on and do one last act of advocacy before I die," he says.
Though his words were spoken aloud (and posted to Facebook), Arends says he pushed back at the president in non-verbal ways: by signing his elector's vote with a Sharpie (the same tool often employed by President Trump) and wearing a beret embroidered with the words "play nice."
The Bermuda-striped Kangol hat was purchased over a year ago, Arends says, with the message added as a "silent protest" of sorts.
"[Being nice] is something we all need to do more of," he says. "As I've gotten older, I've learned there's great merit in taking a breath."
"Taking a breath" isn't something for which the current president, however, is often known — which Arends noted is part of the reason he was so keen to vote for Trump's opponent and so open to doing it in a public venue.
"[Trump's] treatment of women resonated with me because my mother was a four-term city council member in Washington, and she had to deal with her share of sexism and disrespect," Arends says. "People seem to blink at the way he treats women."
The pattern of "how [Trump] acts in terms of governing people and relating to other people" is negatively impacting America and those who live in it, Arends believes.
"We’re getting away from the values we supposedly hold dear as a country," he says.
To be among those to affirm Biden's win, then, was "incredibly gratifying."
"I wasn't a big shot by any means, but we all have the power to alter the [future]," he tells PEOPLE. "I'm glad that I followed my instincts and I’d do it again. No regrets. Our country’s too important."
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