Patrick Swayze’s Wife Shares, “I can still
feel his hand in mine.”
For the first time since her husband, Patrick Swayze, lost his battle with cancer, Lisa Niemi talks about their poignant last two years together and the amazing lifetime of love they shared.By As told to Lori Berger/Photo Credit: Marc RoyceI always knew Patrick was a tough guy, but I don’t think I ever really saw the depth of his strength until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He should have been dead after five weeks, but he fought for 22 months. He was still shooting his new TV series, The Beast, working 12- to 15-hour days 11 months into his illness. He was going through chemotherapy but refused to take any pain medication that would interfere with his performance. He was one tough critter, and the way he handled the illness and the discomfort from it was unbelievable and amazed even me.
I was a socially awkward 15-year-old when I first met Patrick at his mother’s dance studio in Houston. I was a bit of a hippie, part of this outsider crowd. Patrick was the opposite, the quintessential all-American jock. He was the golden boy — an acclaimed football player, gymnast, and dancer — but I wasn’t too impressed with that stuff. He always seemed like a show-off to me, a little too full of himself.
But the first time we danced together, it was like magic. And actually it was at that moment, when we looked into each other’s eyes, that I knew he was special. I used to think I would get married in my 30s. But I was fresh out of high school when Patrick proposed to me — I couldn’t believe it. And he wouldn’t take no for an answer. You have to know Patrick, but he is relentless with everything he does and goes after. And truthfully, there was a part of me that felt, Okay, I’ll do this now, but if it doesn’t work, I can get divorced later. But little did I know that even then, he knew me better than I knew myself, and it was only a short time later that I remember thanking him for making me marry him.
“We never gave up”
I have this wonderful memory from last year of being with Patrick in the apartment we were renting that overlooked the lake in Chicago, where The Beast was being shot. Patrick had just finished another round of chemo and a 15-hour workday. There was this beautiful music playing, and Patrick took me in his arms and we just started dancing. It was a simple, delicious moment of being in each other’s arms and feeling how wonderful it was to be alive. It was one of the best dances I’ve ever had in my life with Patrick.
When The Beast finished shooting and we came back to Los Angeles, our primary focus became his treatments. I had schedules and doctor visits and chemo treatments and pills to administer several times a day. He occasionally had those “why me?” moments, but he never complained or felt sorry for himself. He was a very spiritual person and into Eastern philosophy, but it wasn’t any of this, “I’m going to heaven to sing on a cloud.” He’s extremely willful and always has done that mind-over-matter thing. It’s one of the reasons I believe he survived advanced cancer for as long as he did.I never wanted to cry around him, but he caught me a few times. He knew how I was feeling. We didn’t talk that much about dying or how I was feeling, because to acknowledge that was to acknowledge the end. I’m sure there was a part of Patrick that worried he was letting me down by leaving and that he wasn’t going to be around to protect me. Patrick was fighting for his life and working so hard at it, and I just wanted the love I could give him to be perfect. I can look back at our whole relationship and wish I’d been perfect — but I’m not. That doesn’t stop me from wishing. But the beauty of our marriage was that it wasn’t about being perfect; it was about the imperfections.
People have always asked me, “What’s your secret to this long and happy Hollywood marriage?” which I know is unusual. Someone recently asked me why we even mentioned our separation in the book. [While Patrick worked to recover from alcohol addiction, he and Lisa separated briefly, which they talk about in their book, The Time of My Life.] And we did because it was real and that was part of our figuring things out and getting to a new place together. We worked very hard at our relationship. But the fact is, anyone can work hard at a relationship, but if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. I do think if two people really love each other, which we did, you can work things out. And even though we were different as individuals, we were also very much the same. We had a lot of common interests — horses, flying, the ranch, and the lifestyle we led. We also were both the kind of people who never, ever gave up on anything we had set our minds on doing, and most important, we never gave up on each other.
“Healing will happen in time”
I thought I had been preparing those last 22 months for Patrick’s passing, but looking back, all the sadness and grief that had come before he passed away now looks like an intellectual concept. Honestly, the kind of grief I experienced after Patrick was gone was literally on a cellular level. It’s something deep inside your body that you have no control over. I can still feel the contour of his hand in mine. Sometimes when I’m driving on the freeway, I feel like I can just look over and see him sitting beside me like he did when I would take him to his chemo treatments. I’d put the pedal to the metal in our car and he’d break out into this big, mischievous grin. And I’d reach over and grab his hand and it was wonderful. Even though we’d be on our way to chemo, we both savored those moments.What I would most like is to hear Patrick’s voice again. I recently went to a birthday party for a dear friend, and it was my first outing alone. When I got home that night and Patrick wasn’t there, I kept telling myself, He’s on location; that’s why he’s not here to greet me. I wanted to pick up the phone, like I’ve done so many times before, and call him so I could hear his voice. Or I’ll just be going about my life and want to tell him something, or I expect him to be in the stable and I realize he’s not here. It’s still very difficult.
There are a lot of firsts these days that I am experiencing without Patrick, and those make me miss him the most. The smallest things can trigger it — coming home to the house for the first time alone, the first rain, the holidays, or just going onto a freeway entrance without him for the first time. It’s going to take time to adjust to every one.
My friends have made all the difference in the world; they give me strength. One night recently, I was going into a full-blown panic attack in the middle of the night, and just dialing one friend’s number helped calm me down. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who have lost a loved one and have no one to talk to. People cannot just walk around with these types of feelings and not share them or they will implode. Sometimes I think the pain is beginning to pass, and I’ll marvel at that and say, Wow, I’m really doing great, only to remember that two hours earlier I was dissolved in tears on the floor.
I would like to believe that if I were really, really courageous, I would find a way to go on and be better than before — even without Patrick. That would take tremendous courage, because in a strange way, I feel like that would be a betrayal to him. When I’ve mentioned this to my friends, they’ve said, “Now, wait a minute. Do you really think that’s what Patrick would want?” Patrick was always very proud of my strength, and I think he would want me to prove that he was right about me.
I’m a type A personality; I get things done and I put high expectations on myself, on an emotional level as well. But in this case, I’ve come to realize that the healing is going to happen in its own time. I’ve lowered my self-expectations for the time being. If I feel I should be doing something, I will try and do it, but if I run out of steam, it’s okay to stop.
Life is not fair, death is not fair, but it’s not personal in either case. I saw death coming a week away. It was just standing there waiting. I could rant and rave, but it doesn’t matter. So I say we should do the things that will make our lives fuller and happier. We have to make our own ride.
I finally convinced myself to go to our New Mexico ranch recently, which has always been a very special place for the two of us, and I had a completely different reaction to it than I thought I would. The moment I set foot inside the house, it was like I was seeing it with new eyes. I realized it was still our home, and there was an unexpected comfort there for me. It felt so beautiful, serene and peaceful, and I remember sitting on our porch and saying to myself, See, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I saw Patrick there in the most loving and positive way. And it was like he was sitting on my shoulder saying, “Look at what we built together here.”Patrick’s words on Lisa, from a the book they coauthored:
On their first meeting:
“I was intrigued by this mysterious, beautiful girl, but she acted as cool as ever to me. But then came the moment we first danced together onstage…. It felt like an electric charge suddenly coursed through my body…. We moved together as one, and I felt a stirring deep in my soul.”
On their separation:
“When Lisa left, I had to…reevaluate my life. I was driving away the one person who had always…loved me no matter what…. I stopped drinking after she moved out.”
On finding their way back to each other:
“We looked at each other, and somehow suddenly…saw once again the person we’d fallen in love with…. [I]n that one moment, all [the built-up layers of pain] simply fell away.”
On battling cancer together:
“I didn’t know where I would find the strength to deal with [my diagnosis]. And neither did Lisa. She has always been so strong, so determined and capable…. But after the surgeon left, she just broke down and cried. She crawled into the hospital bed with me, buried her head in my neck, and said, ‘I can’t do this, Buddy…. You can ask me for anything else, but please don’t ask me to do this.’ I held her tightly and we wept together.”
- never giving up
- “tough critter”
- “…the way he handled the illness and the discomfort from it was unbelievable and amazed even me.”
- mind over matter – John on one occasion shared with me- he had something that he would say basically saying the cancer will not win… I will fight it with everything I have… I will beat this. I wish I could remember what he said because it was strong and beautiful and courageous.
- both fought cancers with abysmal survival rates
- occasional “why me moments”
- never complained
- never felt sorry for himself
- I, too, tried not to cry in front of John… I tried to save it for the shower, the barn, the porch…
- I also would love to just hear John’s voice one more time… oh, what I would give for that…
- Friends… the friends who have been here for me have been marvelous… times of crisis also make it very apparent who are fair weather friends and who are through thick and thin friends…
- “Wow, I’m doing really great.” followed by a crash. Yep, been there… many times… not to the point of dissolved in the floor on tears, luckily. Grief doesn’t follow a straight and narrow path. There are peaks and valleys, sunny spots and heavy thunderstorms… with the terrain & weather able to change without notice and in unpredictable patterns.
- “Life is not fair.”
- “Death is not fair.”
- There is nothing we can do to change that.
- “We have to make our own ride.” So very, very true.
- “Look at what we built together here.” I’m sure my modest Leaky Creek Farm is no comparison to the Swayze/Niemi’s ranch, but our house and farm is something that we loved together, built together, and made a home together. It’s where we intended for Nathaniel to grow up. It’s where we intended to live till we died. It’s not only my home, it’s our home…