Boarding a commercial flight in July from L.A. to Reno for a visit with old friends, Lisa Niemi sat down, buckled her seat belt and took out her cell phone. It had been almost 10 months since the death of her husband, actor Patrick Swayze, and Niemi inexplicably felt compelled to send a text to his cell phone number, which she used to do every time she flew. "I just put what I always did: 'I love you,'" she recalls. "And then I cried for a little bit to myself." Niemi expected the message to be returned as undeliverable, "but it didn't come back," she says. "So either somewhere out there he received it, or someone's going, 'Somebody loves me!' And you know what? I figured it was a win-win situation."
Finding such optimism and grace in the midst of grief has been a daily goal of Niemi's since Swayze lost his hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer Sept. 14, 2009, at age 57. Now, sitting on the porch of their sprawling ranch just north of L.A., surrounded by the couple's three dogs ("They've become my self-appointed guardians"), Niemi says her days are spent "just putting one foot in front of the other" and trying to live life the way Swayze would have wanted. "I know he wanted me to be okay," she says. "And I am stronger now. The fact that I've had some good days definitely gives me hope that I can have more."
For Niemi, 54, working through the loss of her husband of 34 years means honoring his memory, especially when it comes to pancreatic cancer awareness. She's planning to appear on the televised benefit Stand Up To Cancer and has become a spokeswoman for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (see box) to help create support for research toward a cure. "The mortality rate is so high. If 40,000 in a year are diagnosed, 35,000 will die within a year," says Niemi. "It's a merciless disease."
The couple fought it hand in hand until the end. Only 15 when she first met Swayze at his mother's dance studio in Texas, Niemi "is the one you want to have in your corner," says Swayze's brother Don. "For being such an intelligent and sensitive lady, she's also tough as a boot." Watching her husband in the hospital losing his battle, Niemi made the ultimate decision to bring him home. "It was tough. It was just my sense that that's what he might have wanted," she says. Once settled back into their house, and with the help of hospice care, "it turned out to be really good. We had family over and everybody got a chance to say goodbye."
A week and a half later, Niemi held Swayze's hand as he took his final breath. "I like to think he knew I was there," she says softly. "I was always afraid I'd freak out. To have your soulmate leave you, it was definitely overwhelming, but at the same time, I knew he was in a better place because he had used every ounce of that body. It was holding him down, and he needed to leave it behind. And that was very, very clear to me in the end."
Now Niemi is just as determined to make herself move forward. The onetime dancer and actress is returning to work, reading scripts to direct and writing a book about coping with Swayze's illness and death. She's also doing yoga, having poker nights with her girlfriends and slowly making their house into more of her own. Though she has yet to remove all of Swayze's clothes from the closet, and many of his belongings are in boxes stacked in the living room, Niemi just finished redecorating their bedroom, painting it a warm coral color and replacing the bed, carpet and curtains. "I'm just taking it slow," she says, glancing down at the wedding ring still on her finger. When it comes to more changes, "I figure I'll know when it's time."
Looking back over the past year, Niemi considers herself "lucky" when she isn't thinking of Swayze. "I say lucky because it's hard to miss someone so much," she says. "I still see him in my dreams every night." Moments of respite include watching the star-filled sky or working out one of the couple's beloved horses. Last spring she finally brought herself to saddle Swayze's favorite white stallion, Kuhaylan Roh, which the actor rode in on during their wedding-vow renewal ceremony in 2008 and which stood guard at the entrance to Swayze's memorial service. "We got a pair of Patrick's boots and put them in the stirrups backwards, which is a tradition," Niemi says. "It was wonderful."
Sadly, Roh followed his master in death in early August, and Niemi was once again grieving-but with a newfound sense of peace. "I just have to think," she says with a sigh, "Patrick must have needed his horse."