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Exclusive: The Lie I Told My Ex-Husband On His Deathbed

A few weeks ago, I went viral! It’s over now, and it’s not the same as virile but, boy, it sure felt that way. The occasion was the death of my ex-husband and his subsequent obituary, which included the last words he heard on this Earth.

He just sat there hoping I’d come back to him one day. 

Mike Elliott was his name; he was from Portland. When we divorced and I eventually fled to sunnier climes, Mike didn’t… didn’t… didn’t do anything, really. He didn’t remarry, didn’t date with much enthusiasm, didn’t leave the home we’d shared, didn’t even get a dog. He just sat there hoping I’d come back. My periodic phone calls and infrequent visits were apparently enough to let him think some day I would. The fact that I married again (widowed), and again (this one took), didn’t dim that hope. He had his pleasures–golf, televised sports, work–the same ones he’d enjoyed when we were together. The only difference was that “wife” no longer occupied the coveted number fourth spot, as I’d wised up and graduated from golf-widow to golf-divorcee.

First, the Stroke

The Deathbed Lie: Teresa and Mike While He Was Still Strong

Mike and Teresa, when he was still strong.

Years passed as years do, and Mike retired. Then he had a stroke. He battled back from the stroke and was able to live alone again, but he couldn’t golf. I think my heart broke harder over this than his did, but maybe he was just happy to be alive. A few more years passed and during one of my checking-in phone calls, Mike told me his heart was getting weaker and he wanted me to know where he kept his passwords.

Mike told me his heart was getting weaker and he wanted me to know where he kept his passwords.

In the meantime my mom died. She’d lived in a cottage behind my house in Austin for 13 years, a solid 11 of them utterly joyful, but the last two years saw my super-smart, funny, independent mom decline to the point where, at age 93, she couldn’t get out of there fast enough. And after three years of non-stop caregiving, neither could I. I put the dogs in the car and went to Oregon, where we stayed with Mike. It was pretty glorious. For those unfamiliar with Oregon in August, it’s the reason for the phrase “God’s Country.”

Better Friends Than Spouses

There was no weirdness around the fact that we were no longer a couple–we were much better friends now than we’d been while married. We liked the same movies and food, and thought the same people were assholes, and what else is there really?  What I didn’t mention on that trip was that a month after my mom died, I’d met the love of my life. I did admit, when he asked if I was seeing anybody that yes, I was, and that he was an Italian photographer and his name was Rino.

When we left Mike said, “I’m really gonna miss you guys.”

The following summer when we went to Italy and got married, I only told Mike the went-to-Italy part, slyly omitting the got-married part. Finally, Mike asked. He was mad I hadn’t told him. I said I knew it would make him feel bad. He said it did make him feel bad. I said, “You’d really like him.” He said, “I’ll never meet him. Not gonna happen.”  Every time I said, “You’d really like him” I got the same response. “Not gonna happen.” And then one day he changed his mind. I think Mike’s Pride got into an argument with his Mortality, and Pride got the shit knocked out of it.

Last August I put the dogs and the husband in the car, and we went to Oregon where we stayed with Mike. The minute we walked in, I knew it would be okay. Mike was gracious, and Rino is the very soul of kindness and charm. We were the family I always knew we could be, and when we left Mike said, “I’m really gonna miss you guys.” Privately he told me Rino was a “great guy,” his highest form of praise.

The Deathbed Lie: Last Visit, Last Words

We went back at Christmastime, and I knew it would be Mike’s last. His heart had gotten weaker, and he needed 24-hour care. After that visit, I spoke to him every day. The conversations became shorter, and I could hear the effort that went into trying to sound like everything was fine.  I was prepared to go to Portland at a moment’s notice, but “the moment” came so fast, that had Air Force 1 been at my front door I wouldn’t have made it.

And then I told him something that wasn’t true. Because I could, because I knew it would please him.

Mike couldn’t speak by then, but the caregivers put the phone to his ear so we could “talk.”  He heard my last “I love you.” And then I told him something that wasn’t true. Because I could, because I knew it would please him, and because maybe, maybe, by giving voice to the thought that had supported me and millions of others for the last five months, saying it could make it so. So I said it. And then I heard his last breath.

The next day I wrote his obituary and sent it to The Oregonian. The rest is viral history. I’m pretty sure this man, this reclusive quasi-misanthrope, would find it hard to believe that news of his death had made it from Oregon to NPR, The View, People Magazine, Bill Maher, CNN, the Washington Post and (my favorite) the Hindustan Times.

Here’s the last paragraph of the obit, the one that got all the attention:

        “Mike ran out of family long ago and is survived by his ex-wife and best friend Teresa Elliott. Though their marriage ran aground, their friendship only grew stronger and hers was the last voice Mike heard. And the last thing she said to him was, “Donald Trump has been impeached.” Upon hearing that he took his final, gentle breath, his earthly work concluded.”

By Teresa Elliott


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