There are some things that schools, parents or friends can never teach you, things that you have to experience to truly know anything about.
These are hard things, hard lessons that for most of us – no matter how wealthy, famous, well-traveled or educated – are impossible to prepare for.
Take the loss of a loved one.
Take the ending of a life you’ve lived one way for years, then waking up one morning to find a void that will force you to live a different way entirely.
“I’m in awe that people go through this and survive,” said Lisa Niemi Swayze on Friday in front of a few hundred people at the Landmark Convention and Reception Centre.
Swayze is now known for many hats – she’s an author, actress, professional dancer, producer and director.
But she readily admits she’ll always be best known for being married to the “sexiest man alive” – movie star Patrick Swayze.
Lisa Nieme Swayze came to Fort Wayne for the 38th annual Aging & In-Home Services of Northeast Indiana awards ceremony, where she was the keynote speaker for community leaders, health care professionals and police officers in attendance.
The focus of her talk delved into her late husband’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and eventual death in 2009 at age 57.
“We all face loss at some point, and nobody prepares you,” she said.
Swayze described her husband – the star of hit and cult movies alike such as “Dirty Dancing,” “Roadhouse” and “Ghost” – as a fearless and humorous man who was always ready to laugh.
And that’s how he confronted the disease after its initial diagnosis, despite the grim statistics presented to him.
Many die within three to six months of the disease’s discovery; few make it past year two, she said.
It was hard for the movie star to hear doctors tell him to go home and get his affairs in order, his widow said.
Swayze told the audience that her husband fought the disease through cutting-edge medical treatments. Support and prayers from friends and fans alike also helped tremendously, she said.
And he was able to keep his humor through it all.
One day on the set of a television show starring her husband, Swayze heard her husband and another man joking and laughing.
The two were ribbing on one of Swayze’s most oft-quoted lines, the one in “Dirty Dancing” where he approaches Jennifer Grey and utters: “Nobody puts baby in a corner.”
Only, this time, he was saying: “Nobody puts Patrick’s pancreas in a corner.”
“He did hate that line,” his widow said of the famous movie quote.
By the second year with the disease, though, options were becoming short. Swayze’s husband eventually died with family by his side 20 months after diagnosis.
In her talk, Swayze described the progression her life took after hearing the words “pancreatic cancer” in relation to her husband.
She talked of the two having to approach each new test, each new scan or visit to the doctor as if they were “gunslingers,” developing a steely resolve to keep calm in the face of the potential results that would come back.
Each step in the process seemed impossible, until the next one would come along.
And then there was letting go.
“I always told myself when it came to that time, I would,” she said.
Later, she added: “The diagnosis was the hardest thing ever. Then letting go was the hardest thing ever, to actually having to live without him, which was the hardest thing ever. … I had a series of hardest things ever.”
That was followed by something not any easier: a sense that her husband’s death was somehow a failure on her part.
But, she told the audience, just as nobody prepares you for such a loss, nobody prepares you for what eventually happens afterward.
Things do get better, she said.
All of that pain, it becomes manageable.
And yes, you will feel happiness again.
It will be weird, Swayze said, but it happens. And when it does, it will “feel like nirvana” because it has been so long.
Facing death, she added, will only make you stronger and make you see clearly what’s important in life.
“There’s nothing like the present to be who you want to be and do what you want to do,” she said.
Which is something else that is sometimes not easy for people to learn – until life forces them to.