updated 10/30/2009 AT 11:00 AM ET
•originally published 10/30/2009 AT 12:30 PM ET
Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi, whose marriage began in their 20s and lasted for 34 years, led one of Hollywood’s storied love affairs – but the Dirty Dancing actor’s widow reveals that there were times when their union teetered to the brink of breakup.
Six years ago, Niemi tells Oprah Winfrey in her first interview since Swayze’s death, her husband descended into a period of heavy drinking and “very dark thoughts. “He was imploding pretty badly,” she said during Friday’s show, so much so that in 2003, Niemi left Swayze for a year. “I didn’t think he was going to live through it and I didn’t want to watch that.”
But the couple reconciled and regained their happiness – only to be tested again when Swayze was diagnosed 22 months ago with pancreatic cancer and was told he had three months to live.
“It was mind numbing,” Niemi says. When faced with the devastating information, “You think you’re going to get these terrific illuminations,” she says, but that didn’t happen. “I looked around and I said, ‘This is awful.’ ”
Niemi says she cried in front of her husband only once, and saved the rest of her tears for her close girlfriends. “I wanted him to know he was going to be okay,” she tells Winfrey.
Niemi, 53, and Swayze never talked about him dying. “We were too positive,” she says. Swayze wanted to believe in God and Heaven but also had doubts. “He had this very realistic side,” says Niemi. “He said, ‘I can’t be 100 percent sure, but I’m going to find out.’ ”
In his final days, Swayze was on pain medication and only minimally aware of his wife’s presence. Niemi tells Winfrey she had seen death before, witnessing animals that the couple kept at the end of their lives. “I felt them leave their bodies and it’s always been a light and free feeling because they were out of pain,” she said. “I was wondering if I would feel the same thing with Patrick. And I didn’t.”
With Niemi at his side, Swayze, 57, died Sept. 14 at his ranch near Los Angeles. “I didn’t feel him leave when he actually stopped breathing,” she said. Now, she says, “I feel him here. I feel like he hasn’t left. I can feel every contour of his hand in mine.”
Niemi says that when Swayze starred in the hit movie Ghost, she thought she would never want to see the kind of visions that Demi Moore’s character saw of her dead husband, played by Swayze, but that has changed. “Now I’m like, ‘Please show yourself. I would love to see you.’ ”
Of the lessons she’s learned since his death, she says, “It’s the proverbial, ‘Do it now,’” she said. “You end up living a lot more in the moment.”
These days, she’s “hanging in there,” she says. “If I was really courageous, I would be open to the possibility that I could go on in life,” she said. Swayze always believed in her, telling her how smart, beautiful and good she was. “I hope I can continue to prove that he was right about me.”