Patrick Swayze was an actor, dancer, singer and songwriter beloved for his unforgettable roles—and moves—in movies like Dirty Dancing and Ghost. In January 2008, he had just finished shooting a TV pilot when he received a devastating pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Refusing to give in to the disease, Patrick continued working while undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatments. On September 14, 2009, he lost his 22-month battle and died at the age of 57. His wife of 34 years, Lisa Niemi, was by his side.
When Lisa first learned of Patrick's diagnosis, she says it was surreal. "I didn't trust myself to take in the information. It was mind-numbing," she says. "It was such horrible news."
Lisa thought she would have a lightbulb moment once she was faced with the reality of Patrick's illness, but the lessons didn't come right away. "You think that you're going to get these terrific illuminations, and I basically looked around and went, 'This is awful,'" she says. "But it happens in its own time. Those lessons come when they're damn good and ready, and not a moment before."
After standing by Patrick's side for almost two years of illness, Lisa says she eventually learned invaluable life lessons. "Mostly, the proverbial 'Do it now,'" she says. "When you're looking at a very limited time with somebody ... you end up living a lot more in the moment and you realize that we don't have anybody for long."
When Patrick was first diagnosed, Lisa says she let him see her cry... but only once. "I said, 'This is the one time I'm going to do this,'" she said. "After that moment, when he looked at me and looked into my eyes, I wanted him to know he was going to be okay. No matter what."
Lisa's outlet was talking to her girlfriends, whom she says were her rock for the past two years. "I have some of the most awesome ladies in my life. They said: 'Call me at 3 in the morning. I don't care,'" she says. "I would pick up the phone, I'd cry and get mad. Anything I wanted with my friends, and then I'd go back to him. Because both of us had to deal with his illness, but he's the one who was going to pay the ultimate price."
Lisa says they talked about heaven over the course of Patrick's illness, but they didn't often talk about death."We were too positive," she says.
Though Lisa and Patrick were hopeful after his diagnosis, she says they were also realistic. "We were what we called optimist realists," she says. "We knew there wasn't a cure. But you know what? There's a reason why somebody's always the first, and there will be a first at some point."
In his final days, Patrick was peaceful and free from pain, Lisa says. "There's a strange, difficult transition from trying to treat and make better to trying to make comfortable," she says. "His heart [was] so strong—metaphorically and literally. But it was only so long that his heart was going to keep going."
Lisa says on the day Patrick died, she had anticipated that it would be their last day together. "I was afraid to leave his side," she says. "But once it was time to go, he was making that journey. He was on his way."
The last two years with her husband were precious, Lisa says, but one of her fondest memories is their vow renewal ceremony. "We had always thought about doing that, both of us, and when we acknowledged that out loud, we went, 'Well, let's go ahead and do it,'" she says. "It was incredibly magical. It was a fairy-tale day." Patrick even rode in on a stallion. "After 34 years, finally he rides in on a white horse!" Lisa says. "I was happy."
They were together for more than three decades, but like any marriage, Lisa says the relationship took work. In Time of My Life, which she co-wrote with Patrick before his death, she reveals that they separated for about a year. "He had some drinking issues and some very dark thoughts," she says. "I didn't think he would live through it, frankly. And I didn't want to be there to watch him die. Not like that."
Patrick cleaned up, and he and Lisa got back together, but it still took work, she says. "It still was very tough, and it was later on that we just had a moment where we both walked through the door at the same time in a willingness to be in love with each other," she says. "The fact that we loved each other was never in doubt."
Over the years, Lisa says people have asked them their secret to a long marriage. "When you come down to it, it's work. It's really being willing to work and hang in there that long."
Moving on will be hard, but Lisa says she knows that Patrick would want her to enjoy the rest of her life. "I had a moment where I thought, 'If I was really courageous, I would be open to the possibility that I could go on in life,'" she says. "I've been really blessed to have a man who always believed in me and thought I was smart and beautiful and good...all these wonderful things. And I hope that I can continue to prove that he was right about me."