Saturday 10 December 2016

Review: Biography: Worth Fighting For by Lisa Niemi Swayze

Simon andSchuster, £16.99
Available withfree P&P onindependentbooks.ie or Tel 01 4059100
Lisa Niemi Swayze gives a harrowing account of losing Patrick to cancer, writes Chrissie Russell

Chrissie Russell

Published 22/01/2012 | 06:00

To many people, Patrick Swayze will always be the twinkle-toed hunk who pulled Baby from the corner in Dirty Dancing. To others, he's the muscular, surfing gangster from Point Break, or the romantic spectre whose love transcends death in Ghost.

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There are few who would want to remember him as he was in his last months: gaunt, aged and hollow-cheeked, ravaged by the pancreatic cancer that ultimately claimed his life three years ago.

But his wife, Lisa Niemi Swayze, hasn't the luxury of editing away this image, and in Worth Fighting For she forces others to address it and enter her world where she spent 21 months fighting to save her husband's life.

Lisa met Patrick at his mother's dance studio when she was just 14. Five years later they married and throughout his ascent to fame, she was by his side. In 34 years of marriage, they rarely went more than a day without talking.

It was Lisa who drove her husband to the medical centre from their home in LA on January 14, 2008, when he felt unwell and the one who first learned he had pancreatic cancer.

He might have been the star, but it quickly emerges that she is no shrinking violet. She takes the lead in learning all about his illness, pursuing treatment options and looking after him. Her life as an actor, writer, director and working pilot goes on hold.

Despite initially being told he has just weeks to live, Patrick's condition improves after he's accepted on to an experimental treatment programme at Stanford. Brief moments of hope present themselves. He becomes well enough to work, horse ride and travel.

Even though we know how it will end, it's impossible not to become emotionally involved in hoping for a happy ending.

Sometimes Lisa's storytelling is stilted and she jumps disjointedly between different timeframes and events. But the rawness of the prose only serves to drive home how raw this story is for its writer. She confesses: "It's very hard to talk about the last days of Patrick's life. I find myself avoiding it. Finding reasons to justify putting off telling this part of the story until next month."

This isn't to say that she shies away from uncomfortable truths. Patrick's alcohol problem, which almost ended their marriage in 2003, is addressed. So, too, are the often unspoken feelings associated with being a carer. She struggles with the burden of care, feels under-appreciated, resentful and exhausted. She gets angry, frustrated, feels guilty, worthless and unable to cope.

She is also completely open and honest in what it was like looking after Patrick at home in his final months.

The physical description is harrowing -- his skeletal frame, the stinking breath and body odours, the blockages in his intestines, the stomach abscess, the lung collapse and the aftermath of chemo sessions. It's told exactly as it happened in graphic detail that does not spare the reader.

Although this is upsetting, it is her loneliness in the aftermath of his death that really connects. After suffering two miscarriages, the couple never had children. This isn't mentioned in the book -- perhaps the author felt unable to confront the pain of losing a husband as well as two unborn children in one volume.

But losing her soulmate is like losing a limb. "No one told me how hard it was going to be living without my husband," she writes.

"It's like learning to walk again -- but with just one leg."

She doesn't whine but nor does she claim to be offering up a self-help guide to coping with cancer or finding light in the darkness of death.

"I wish I had something good or enlightening, or even remotely encouraging to say about the process of losing someone," she writes.

"But I don't. There is nothing fun about it, nothing good, nothing hopeful. It's like the world is twisted like a wet rag until all the colour, all the poetry of life is squeezed out of it."

The sense of loss ambushes her and all she can do is sit waiting for the moment to pass, knowing another one will come soon enough. With grief, as with the pancreatic cancer that claimed her husband, there is no magic cure and it doesn't matter how famous or wealthy you are.

But for all the suffering, there is (whether Lisa realises it or not) an underlying message of hope to her book. For one, it will make anyone else who has cared for and lost a loved one to terminal illness, feel less alone and isolated in their grief.

Secondly, Patrick's struggle to survive, the fact that he managed to film a physically demanding TV series and complete a book before cancer claimed his life, will inspire hope in the will to live.

But above anything else, it's a love story. In a world where so many Hollywood marriages are measured in months, the Swayzes really embodied the commitment of 'till death us do part'.

Even while fighting the illness that would claim her husband, she says she'd never been happier, purely because they were together and in love -- something that is truly worth fighting for.

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