Patrick Swayze's Wife, Lisa Niemi: 'Lucky to Have Had Him'

Lisa Niemi on cancer battle, grief and the ups and downs of their marriage.

November 2, 2009, 4:36 PM

Nov. 3, 2009— -- In September, actor Patrick Swayze died at age 57 after a 22-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He beat the odds, outliving his initial prognosis by more than a year and a half. He also beat Hollywood's odds as part of one of the entertainment industry's most enduring marriages.

Swayze did all those things and more with a formidable ally in his corner -- his life-long love, Lisa Niemi. The couple wrote about that love story in their new book, "The Time of My Life."

"I'm a lucky woman to have had him," Niemi told "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts today. "We've had an incredible life together, and we got to really see that."

"I'm hanging in there," Niemi said, adding that she's still "riding that wave" of grief. "When I'm good, I'm good ... but I forget that two hours earlier I was dissolved on the floor."

Niemi said she and Swayze were "optimist realists" in the face of incurable cancer. "There's a reason that people go through all these treatments," she said. "There is going to be that first person that makes it."

Writing the book, which addresses Swayze's illness only in the final chapter and doesn't cover his death, helped the couple remember all the happy times they shared, Niemi said.

"The Time of My Life" focuses on the life and career of the actor who leaped into audience's lives and hearts in 1987 as Johnny Castle in "Dirty Dancing."

It was an overnight success, a in the making for a lifetime, beginning when Swayze was a child in his mother's dance studio in Houston.

The oldest boy in a family of five children, Swayze grew up dancing and admittedly loved showing off for the girls at the studio. Then Niemi came into his life. Swayze wrote in the book that "I was there when a particular 15-year-old girl with long blond hair started showing up."

The young dancer knew Swayze's reputation as a Casanova, and kept her distance.

"I was still intrigued by this mysterious, beautiful girl, but she acted as cool as ever to me," Swayze wrote. "But then came the moment we first danced together on stage. And suddenly, everything changed."

Lisa Niemi on Patrick Swayze: 'I Remember Everything'

Swayze and Niemi soon married and scraped by as dancers until "Dirty Dancing" launched Swayze to superstardom. Throughout his career, Niemi was always by his side.

"I remember everything," Niemi said. "I was so struck by how hard we'd always worked. ... It must be the dancer in us. It always has to be better."

"She literally is my creative partner," Swayze told Barbara Walters in an interview shortly after "Dirty Dancing" was released. "There just feels like there's a real power between us. It feels like there's a real chemistry, like we're soul mates. There's just some intense passion because our fights are huge, but our love is huge."

Those fights and Swayze's drinking ultimately led to a year-long separation. But they conquered it, like so many other obstacles they faced during their 38-year romance.

"When the separation happened I had to be willing for it to be permanent," Niemi said. "We didn't feel like we had a choice. Did I love him still? Absolutely. But it wasn't going to work any other way. To his credit, things did turn around."

The ultimate test came in 2008 when Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He met the challenge head on, with determination and hope.

"I keep dreaming of a future, a future with a long and healthy life, a life not lived in the shadow of cancer but in the light," Swayze said at a September 2008 Stand Up 2 Cancer event. "I dream that the word 'cure' will no longer be followed by the words 'it's impossible,' and I ask only one thing of you. Will you stand up with me? Will you stand up to cancer?"

Soon after that speech, Swayze and Niemi renewed their vows -- he riding up on a white horse, vigorous and passionate until the end.

"We did it very Prince Charming and Snow White," he told Walters in the last interview before he died.

"It was like a fairy tale," Niemi added. "One of the happiest days ever."

Cancer 'Never Beat' Patrick Swayze

"I have no greater respect for any other human being on this earth like I have for her," Swayze told Walters.

Niemi echoed that respect for her husband, and said that while she grieved throughout Swayze's cancer battle, she never showed him that grief.

"Every time he looked at me, I wanted him to know he was OK," she said.

"It's like spending 22 months grieving," she said, but the actual loss "makes all that previous sadness look like an intellectual concept." When you lose somebody, "that kind of grief happens on a cellular level."

At her first public appearance after her husband's death, Niemi talked about the pain of losing Swayze.

"This is all new to me," she said, during a grief panel at the Women's Conference last week. "I thought during the 22 months of my husband's illness that it gave me time to get used to the idea of losing him, and I found for myself when I actually got to that point I said, no, no, no. That wasn't the same at all, the actual loss is -- it's like an animal all on its own. It is almost like when the grief takes it, your body is not your own. "

Niemi also paid tribute to her husband's fighting spirit.

"Cancer may have taken him, but it never beat him," she said.

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