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Swayze memoir reveals his brave final battle

Co-written with his wife, Lisa Niemi, “The Time of My Life,” hitting bookshelves Sept. 29, details the actor’s fortitude in the face of the pancreatic cancer that took his life at age 57. “Throughout this book, you get a sense of how courageous he was,” said his publisher.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It’s a fair bet that when many celebrities set out to write their autobiographies, their purpose is to let the world know what wonderful and fascinating people they are. But not Patrick Swayze. When he wrote the memoir that will hit bookshelves Sept. 29, he wasn’t telling his story to others so much as to himself.

“When he sat down to write the book, he wanted to see if he had lived a good life,” Judith Curr, publisher of Atria Books, told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Wednesday in New York. Curr said that those reading “The Time of My Life,” written with his wife and high school sweetheart, Lisa Niemi, will answer that question in the affirmative: “He absolutely was a good person and lived a good life.”

The star of “Dirty Dancing” and dozens of other films died Monday at the age of 57 after a 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer. His struggle with the disease was waged with the same courage with which he had faced his often-tumultuous life, Curr said.

“All throughout this book, you get a sense of how courageous he was and what physical strength he had and what kind of emotional energy he had to put toward this, and how dedicated he was to sitting down with his wife Lisa and looking at their life together, which is a great privilege,” Curr said.

Dancing to actingLauer said that the book reveals things about Swayze that he didn’t know, including what a terrific athlete he was and the fact that his talent as a ballet dancer was so great that he rehearsed with the legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York before setting out to become an actor instead. At one point, Swayze also had legitimate hopes of becoming an Olympic gymnast.

His decision to go into acting was one of necessity, brought about by the lingering and debilitating effects of a football injury.

“The book actually opens with a football game when he was in high school, and he does bad damage to his knee,” Curr explained. “He tries to get up and walk, but he can’t — and that injury goes on to plague him throughout [his life].

“So when you look at that clip where he’s dancing off the stage in ‘Dirty Dancing’ and he’s landing and you know this about his knees [you think], ‘How did he do that?’ ”

Profile in courageOne might well ask the same question about how Swayze refused to bow to pancreatic cancer, a disease that resists diagnosis and treatment and kills 95 percent of those who contract it. Even while undergoing chemotherapy and terminally ill with the disease, Swayze worked hard for months this year on his final role, the lead one in the A&E police drama “The Beast.”

“I continued with chemotherapy all the way through the shoot, but I never took any painkillers since they dull not only your pain but also your sharpness,” Swayze wrote of the experience.

He also writes about being told that he had a disease that would almost surely end his life too early.

“I had been having some digestive trouble, mostly acid reflux and a kind of bloated feeling, for a few weeks,” Swayze said in the book. “I’ve had a sensitive stomach my whole life, so I hadn’t thought much of it, but lately I just couldn’t shake the constant discomfort ... My doctor told me my chances of surviving for more than a few months weren’t high, and I had no reason to doubt him.”

Rather than despair, Swayze began thinking of how much he’d done.

“I began thinking to myself, I’ve had more lifetimes than any 10 people put together, and it’s been an amazing ride. So this is okay,” he wrote.

Dance and romance
Swayze and Niemi met when they were teenagers at his mother’s dance studio in Texas. Swayze wrote that he pinched her bottom when he first saw her, a move that she did not appreciate: “I reached down, pinched her rear end and said, ‘Hey there cutie!’ She turned and glared at me like I’d just farted in church.”

Niemi said that it took her two years to warm up to him, and they didn’t really set out in life together until he went to New York to attempt to become a professional dancer. It was only when his knee kept interfering with his dancing that Swayze decided to switch gears and become an actor. His breakthrough role, in “Dirty Dancing,” didn’t come around until 1987, when he was 35.

The marriage wasn’t always smooth. Swayze had several infamous bouts with heavy drinking, first when his father died at 57 of a heart attack, and another several years ago. The second incidence was so severe that Niemi moved out until the actor sobered up.

“It’s a portrait of a marriage, too,” Curr told Lauer. “It has ups and downs and difficulties, how you never give up and are always striving to do better.”

In the end, the couple, who never had children, would become closer than ever. Last year, when Swayze and Nieme renewed their wedding vows. Swayze wrote his own comments.

“Together, we’ve created journeys that were beyond anything we could imagine,” Swayze told the love of his life. “We have ridden into the sunset on a white stallion, countless times. We’ve tasted the dust in the birthplaces of religions. Yet you still take my breath away. I’m still not complete until I look in your eyes. You are my woman, my lover, my mate and my lady. I’ve loved you forever, I love you now and I will love you forevermore.”