Patrick Swayze’s widow to speak at Macon State College

lfabian@macon.comSeptember 28, 2012 

Not long after actor Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, his movie “Ghost” played on television.

His wife of 34 years, Lisa Niemi, paused to watch the story of a dead man who appears in spirit to his love after he’s gunned down in a botched robbery.

“I thought I was tempting the fates by sitting down and watching a little bit of it,” she said.

She could not bring herself to watch the whole thing. To this day, she only views snippets of his nearly three dozen films.

“I don’t wait long enough for it to affect me,” she said. “I don’t take any chances.”

It’s only been three years since her husband took his last breath with Lisa and his brother Donny at his side at the family ranch outside of Los Angeles.

What Niemi has learned since his death, and in the 20 months her husband fought his terminal diagnosis, will be the subject of her keynote speech Monday at the End-of-Life Symposium at Macon State College.

“This kind of grief, it runs you,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s not an emotional or an intellectual choice.”

While the star of “Dirty Dancing” was ill, the couple penned his memoir, “The Time of My Life,” that was released nearly a year after he died. She has since written a second book, “Worth Fighting For: Love, Loss, and Moving Forward,” which will be the basis of her speech.

“The life I had was destroyed. I’m having to build from the ground up and do so under tremendous emotional pressure,” she said. “When cancer like this strikes someone, it doesn’t just go to wipe out the patient, it goes to wipe out the whole family. Everybody suffers.”

They had been together for decades.

When Niemi was just 14, Patrick Swayze pinched her on the behind as he left a Houston, Texas, theater, where they both rehearsed.

“Hey sweetie,” he said, as she rolled her eyes at his forward advance.

The young woman, who had her first professional role at age 10, was not impressed with the dancer who had a reputation of being a terrible flirt with a big head.

In the following years as they danced and performed together, they started dating and fell into what she calls a “great love.”

As in the movie “Ghost,” she can still feel his presence with her, and he pops into her mind often through each day.

“All of us will face loss, but I tell you what,” she said. “There’s ways of dealing with it that will teach you things beyond your wildest dreams and things that are very beautiful.”

Honoring the lost loved one and making their life lessons true in everyone’s own lives is the only way to ease the pain of absence, she concluded.

On Sept. 14, the third anniversary of Swayze’s death, she was in Boston and found her way to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Her mind traveled back to a quote on a booklet from an acting class the couple took together years ago. It spoke of following through on your dreams. It reminded her of Patrick.

“Certainly, my husband had that kind of tenacity and courage. I found it very inspiring,” she said.

Marking birthdays and special occasions helps her cope.

She writes messages to her husband, ties them to balloons and lets them float skyward.

“It’s nice to be able to do things like that, and I try to push myself outside of the box and try new things and keep myself engaged in life, rather than just holing up and closing the curtain,” she said.

She channels energy into being the national spokesperson for Pancreatic Cancer Network.

“It’s just human nature to find something to blame and I couldn’t blame him, and the illness seemed so arbitrary,” she said. “But my one action that I can take is that I can fight this disease, this terrible, hideous disease. And I can try to do my best to try to prevent people from going through the terrible lack of hope that comes with it.”

Niemi will speak at 5 p.m. Monday in the banquet hall of Macon State’s Professional Sciences and Conference Center and will be signing copies of her book beginning at 4 p.m.

When she began writing “Worth Fighting For,” she thought it would be “the most depressing book on the planet.” Instead, she realized how many victories the couple shared and how much of their story was positive.

“This journey Patrick and I went through in his illness and aftermath, it was heartbreaking and it was challenging, but it also yielded incredible, unexpected gifts.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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