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Chapter 14

In early May 2000, after a particularly dry spring, the National Park Service set a controlled fire in northern New Mexico to burn off brush and grass. For months, the area had suffered record-setting high temperatures, and the landscape was as parched as it had been in decades. So when fierce winds suddenly whipped up the flames, the fire quickly got out of control. Within days, huge swaths of New Mexico were ablaze.

Lisa and I were at Rancho Bizarro in Los Angeles, but we became more and more worried as we watched the news coverage of the wildfires. Tens of thousands of people were being evacuated, and their homes were going up like tinder. News reports showed walls of flames and fleeing residents, and President Clinton declared a state of emergency in several New Mexico counties. All I could think was that our beautiful ranch—our haven and spiritual home—was in danger.

We sweated things out in LA for a couple of weeks, but as the fire drew closer to our ranch, I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit thousands of miles away as the place I loved went up in smoke—it wasn’t the Swayze way to sit idly by when action might help. When we heard the authorities were evacuating the canyon where our house was, that was the last straw. I decided to fly out there and get into the canyon somehow, to at least bulldoze a fire break around our house.

Late on the night of May 31, I told Lisa I was flying to New Mexico the next morning. “You’re what?” she said. “Buddy, they’re evacuating the canyon. You won’t even be able to get near the ranch.” By now, I was operating more on emotion than on logic, but I couldn’t just stay put. All I knew was, if I stood aside while that raging fire destroyed our ranch, I’d never forgive myself for not having done something.

Lisa tried to convince me not to go, but I was determined. Because I was at an emotional fever pitch, I hardly slept, and before the sun rose, I threw some clothes into a bag and headed out to the Van Nuys airport. I settled into the cockpit of our Cessna 414a to make the three-hour flight to New Mexico just before dawn broke.

About a month earlier, Lisa had encountered a dangerous situation while flying the Cessna near the Grand Canyon, where she’d come to visit me on the set of Waking in Reno. Lisa had taken up flying at my urging, after initially not being all that interested. But when she started taking lessons, she loved it, and she even learned how to do aerobatics—doing flying loops and other stunts in the air. She got so good that when she entered aerobatics competitions, she placed ahead of instructors who were competing. She was—and still is—an experienced, coolheaded pilot.

She had been climbing to a higher altitude, when all of a sudden, she heard a screaming noise in the cockpit. The noise startled her, but she quickly realized that the noise meant the cabin wasn’t pressurizing properly as she climbed. An outflow valve was stuck, inhibiting the free flow of air—the squealing was like the noise a balloon makes when you slowly leak air out of the neck. We had a bad habit of occasionally smoking in the cockpit, and the sticky residue on the outflow valve was a result of tar from cigarettes.

Luckily, she was losing pressurization slowly, so she had time to come down to a safe altitude. Otherwise, she’d have been in big trouble. When an airplane’s cabin isn’t pressurized properly, there’s not enough oxygen, which leads to hypoxia and possibly death. That’s exactly what happened to the golfer Payne Stewart, who died along with five other people when the Learjet they were flying in lost pressurization. The pilots passed out and eventually died from lack of oxygen, and the plane just kept on flying for several more hours until it finally ran out of fuel and crashed. Fortunately, Lisa realized quickly what was happening, so she was able to descend to a safe altitude and finish her flight. And we got the plane serviced right after the incident.

On the morning of June 1, I decided to fly at a relatively low altitude—thirteen thousand feet—in case the pressurization problem recurred. I brought the Cessna to thirteen thousand feet, set the autopilot, and settled in for the rest of the flight. And that’s the last thing I remember, until suddenly becoming aware of green and brown around me, and everything spinning. I looked around for blue sky and tried to aim for it. But the plane was at a very low altitude, and when I saw a strip of pavement with a strange oval at one end, one thought managed to penetrate the fog in my brain: That must be the airport.

I hooked a hard left to line up with what I thought was the runway. The next thing I knew, there were electrical power boxes in front of me, and I vaguely remember trying to push the plane over or around them. Then suddenly, I was on the ground. I sat stunned for a moment in the cockpit. I was so groggy and disoriented, it didn’t feel like whatever had just happened was real. But when I turned around and saw our two dogs, Boda and Jazz, wagging their tails in the cabin of the airplane, I knew it must be.

I opened the plane’s door and stepped down onto the street, still thinking I was in New Mexico. I had no idea that I’d just had an off-airport landing, or that my airplane was damaged. In fact, I had just landed on the street of what was to become a new housing development in Prescott Valley, Arizona. It was just being constructed at the time, so there was hardly anyone around to see my plane descend, clip two light poles and a power box, and still somehow land without crashing.

A couple of construction workers came running over, and I vaguely remember one of the guys telling me I’d clipped something on the way down. I walked around the front of the plane to look at the wing, and when I saw that it was damaged, I got upset for the first time—this plane was Lisa’s and my baby, and I’d hurt it. I still didn’t understand the enormity of what had happened, but little by little, the truth started penetrating the fog of my hypoxia-addled brain.

The first thing I did was call Lisa—a call I dreaded making, as I knew she’d be upset. “Lisa, I’ve had an off-airport landing,” I told her. “I thought I was landing in New Mexico, but I ended up in a housing development in Prescott, Arizona. I’m okay, but the plane is damaged.”

As Lisa told me later, she just went numb as I told her what happened. It was almost too much for her to take in, after the difficulties we’d been dealing with over the past few years.

What made it worse was the fact that hypoxia slurs your speech, so it sounded as if I’d been drinking. This effect wore off quickly, but because I called Lisa so soon after landing, all she knew was that I’d damaged the plane in an unscheduled landing, had nearly killed myself doing it, and on top of it sounded as if I was unfit to fly.

The next call I made was to the Federal Aviation Administration, to report the incident. I described what had happened, and the FAA representative told me he’d call the National Transportation Safety Board. So all the official wheels were in motion for dealing with the incident. Then, I made a decision that seemed sensible at the time, but that created its own problems.

I was carrying some beer and wine on board, which was of course legal—Lisa and I often brought food and drink from LA to New Mexico, since it was a long drive from the ranch to the nearest store. I should have just left it where it was, but instead I gave it to the construction workers. There was no doubt that photographers were on the way, and I had a feeling that if word got out there was alcohol on board, they’d try to twist the story into “Patrick Swayze Flies Drunk.” I was trying to minimize possible complications, but when the story came out that I’d gotten rid of the alcohol, people assumed I was trying to cover something up.

I was anxious to get away from the scene before photographers showed up, so I asked one of the construction workers to give me a ride to a hotel, where I could settle in and take care of things. Lisa and our longtime flight instructor, Frank Kratzer, joined me there as soon as they could, and we waited for the National Transportation Safety Board investigators to arrive at the site, so we could meet with them and answer any questions they had.

The NTSB investigation later revealed that a clamp on the hose connecting the plenum chamber to the upper plenum had malfunctioned. That alone would have been enough to cause a pressurization problem, but the situation was also exacerbated by two other factors: the continued presence of tar deposits on that rubber outflow valve, and the fact that I was a heavy smoker. When you have a three-pack-a-day habit, as I had at the time, your lungs don’t function as well at altitude as those of nonsmokers. The NTSB report noted that the combination of all these factors meant I almost certainly had become hypoxic during the flight. And it found no evidence of alcohol as a factor.

But the really scary thing was this: Nobody wakes up from full-on hypoxia. Once you have passed out due to lack of oxygen in the brain, it’s impossible to recover unless you descend to a breathable altitude. I had apparently stopped responding to air traffic control around Needles, California, near the Arizona state line. Yet somehow, I must have knocked off the autopilot between there and Prescott Valley, which allowed the plane to descend. Otherwise, my plane would have just continued at thirteen thousand feet, flying until it ran out of fuel, like Payne Stewart’s plane. And I would have been dead.

Even though I’d stopped responding, my aircraft kept on flying. Air traffic control radar showed that between Needles and my landing in Prescott Valley, I almost hit the ground eleven times. I flew between 6,500 and 11,500 feet, narrowly missing the mountains. And my route looked like a strand of spaghetti, looping around with no purpose for about forty-five minutes.

Fortunately, as I approached Prescott Valley, my plane had gently drifted lower until there was enough oxygen in the air to revive me. I woke up at just a couple hundred feet above the ground and managed to land safely anyway. It was nothing short of a miracle. Robert Crispin of the NTSB even said to me, “This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to talk to a pilot who’s suffered hypoxia.” Pilots just don’t live through that. But somehow, I had.

There was a lot of fallout from the off-airport landing. For one thing, Lisa and I never smoked in the cockpit again. I also offered to make a public-service announcement for the FAA, warning of the dangers of smoking while flying, which weren’t widely known at the time.

Even though the problem had been mechanical, I still had to fight to keep my pilot’s license, going through psychological testing and skills tests. That, combined with the repairs our plane required, meant it would be two more years before we could fly it again. But getting into the cockpit again wasn’t nearly as tough as getting through the nightmares I began having regularly after the incident. I woke up many nights in a cold sweat, dreaming I was heading for a crash or floating aimlessly in the sky, unconscious to the end. Once again, I’d cheated death, but as with the horse accident on Letters from a Killer, this incident left painful scars that were hard to heal.

Lisa had a hard time coming to terms with it, too. She later told me that when I first called her from Prescott, her heart felt as heavy as a stone. We had been together twenty-five years by now, through thick and thin, through enough pain and joy to fill a hundred lifetimes. She hadn’t wanted me to fly that morning in the first place, but when I did, and then nearly died doing it, she felt betrayed that I’d risked everything we’d built together—everything she loved. Lisa felt helpless and angry, and it would take some time for those feelings to subside.

This airplane incident, combined with my feelings of vulnerability after the horse accident, really messed with my head. I had cheated death once again—but what for? What was the point of all this? What was I adding to the world? My career was at a crossroads, and the past few years had shown me the darker side of fame. As high as my career had soared with the success of Dirty Dancing and Ghost, it just felt that much worse to be back struggling again.

Earlier in my life, I had made it through difficult times by always focusing on the next dream. From football to gymnastics to dancing to acting, I always was able to throw myself fully into my next goal, and keep myself going. I never doubted that there was something great around the corner, and I never tired of pushing myself toward it.

But now I was starting to feel not just tired, but disillusioned, too. Had all this effort and pain been worth it? Had I created anything of value? As my relationship with Lisa frayed from the stress of constantly trying to prove myself, and struggling with feelings of never being quite good enough, I wondered if I had been focusing on the wrong things all along, to the detriment of what really mattered in life.

And even as I kept pushing to find good projects in Hollywood, the whole business of making movies was changing. With the economic downturn of 2000–2001, financing for bigger projects dried up and independent films started becoming more popular. There seemed to be fewer movies in general, and not as many good roles to choose from. It was tough going, but I did manage to shift gears and get roles in a few good independent films— Green Dragon with Forest Whitaker, Donnie Darko with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Waking Up in Reno with Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, and the beautiful Natasha Richardson among them.

There was one film both Lisa and I longed to make, but we’d spent years trying to pull it together without success. Ever since our play Without a Word had been a hit in the LA theater world back in 1984, we had wanted to turn it into a film. Without a Word had only a month-long run in LA, but even all these years later, people still stopped Lisa and me on the street to say how much they’d loved it. They would tell us how inspired they were, and how moved by the depiction of people who never gave up chasing their dreams. And they would ask us to please make a movie out of it.

If movies were made through sheer effort alone, we’d have finished this one long ago. Over the past two decades, Lisa and I had done everything possible to try to bring Without a Word to the screen. But there are so many factors that have to come together to make a movie, it’s like herding cats, and we just couldn’t seem to get all the cats together at once.

Early on, Lisa had done a full rewrite, since the play was nonlinear and would be hard to adapt for film without a more traditional narrative story line. We had entered into discussions with a variety of possible producers, financiers, directors, and writers, but for one reason or another, we were having trouble finding the right blend. We’d start down one road, thinking we were making progress, but then the project would fall apart.

A lot of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that the artistic vision Lisa and I had for the film was different from the vision other possible partners had. Bagdad Cafe director Percy Adlon wanted to direct at one point, but we parted ways when we couldn’t agree on how the script should be structured. Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Israel Horowitz wrote several script drafts, but they weren’t true to the spirit of the original piece. Lisa and I even had a falling-out with Nicholas Gunn, who had cowritten the play with us back in 1984, over differences about the movie script. We didn’t speak for three years, though he eventually did rejoin our effort to make the film.

The project stalled again after Nicholas left, until we realized it was do-or-die time. Lisa and I knew we wouldn’t be able to do the film’s very demanding dance sequences forever, so we had to make it happen soon—or let it go. Nicholas came back, and we had an associate producer on board. But we were still having problems finding a writer who could deliver the script we wanted.

And that’s when Lisa really stepped up. She invited Nicholas and the producer, Janice Yarbrough, who had run our production company at Fox, to dinner. With all four of us at the table, she said, “I’ve got the burn. I have to do this script. I know what needs to be done, and I can write it.”

A dead silence fell at the table, and I looked at Lisa. Her face showed a kind of determination I’d never seen before, and although it was clear that Nicholas and Janice weren’t convinced she was the best choice, she wouldn’t back down. She’d always been the type to defer to others, playing down her own skills. But not this time. She’d worked on nearly all my movie scripts over the years, and had written a theatrical musical, so she was completely prepared for the task. More important, she knew the story in her bones.

In the face of their obvious reticence, Lisa said, “I lived this. I know it better than anyone, and I can write it better than anyone.” As she spoke, I saw in her eyes that she was absolutely right, and I suddenly knew with every fiber of my being that she could do it. I made up my mind at that moment to support her no matter what, because she’d earned this and would do it better than anyone.

Janice threatened to quit, but Lisa stood her ground. And even though Janice did end up walking away from the project, Lisa knew it was just a difference of professional opinion, and we remained friends with Janice. Lisa never wavered, and in addition to writing the script, she took on the director’s duties, too. She had directed several professional videos about horses and aircraft, and had studied the craft seriously with directors and cinematographers on numerous film sets over the years. Lisa knew what she was doing—and now she was stepping up for herself to have the chance to do it.

This was the film that finally led Lisa to put herself out there in a way she’d long been reluctant to. It was a huge turning point professionally, and I was thrilled for her—and for our movie.

Lisa was excited about taking on the roles of writer and director, but she felt that trying to do both, and act in the film, too, might be too much. “Lisa,” I told her, “you’ve got to do this role. It’s in your DNA.” She still wasn’t convinced, so we asked a few friends who had been actor-directors on other films whether they had run into any particular problems. Diane Ladd, who wrote, directed, and starred in 1995’s Mrs. Munck, reassured Lisa that it was absolutely doable and gave her tips on how to manage the workload.

Billy Bob Thornton was more succinct. “All the producers have been telling us this isn’t possible,” Lisa told him. “They’re saying it’s too complicated to direct and star in a movie at the same time.”

Billy Bob, who wrote, directed, and starred in Sling Blade, said, “One word: horseshit.”

We took that as a kind of blessing, and with a commitment for financing from Warren Trepp and some money from our own pockets, we were finally off to the races. Lisa wrote, directed, starred in, and coproduced One Last Dance, the name we chose for the film. We got an amazing cast of dancers, including my little sister, Bambi, and hired the fantastic George de la Peña to play Nicholas Gunn’s role. It’s not easy to find people who can both dance and act at the highest level, but George could do both beautifully. He was a former soloist with the American Ballet Theatre and an instinctive, genuine actor. He was perfect for the role.

We shot the film in thirty-two days, mostly in Winnipeg but with a few exteriors shot in New York and LA. I’d had yet another knee surgery just a few weeks before shooting started, so some of the dance scenes were pretty excruciating for me— Lisa had to cut around my grimacing face on more than one occasion. But when all was said and done and Lisa had pulled the footage together, One Last Dance was everything we’d hoped it would be. Everyone in the cast and crew had given their hearts and souls to this movie, and it showed.

Seeing the finished film was a culmination of two decades of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and it was thrilling. One Last Dance was released as a DVD and went to number one, and it’s still one of the best movies ever made about what it’s really like in the world of dance. Lisa showed all the abilities I knew she had, and I loved being directed by her. She had a natural instinct for it, and I was thrilled that she’d finally gotten the chance to put that talent into action.

I’d never been so proud of Lisa, but I was spent by the end of the process. The shooting had been grueling, and there’s always a natural letdown when you finish a project you’re emotionally invested in. One Last Dance was such a deeply personal project that I felt that letdown even more acutely. And before I knew it, I was becoming seriously depressed again.

I don’t think I really understood what depression was until this period of my life. I had certainly struggled with deep sadness and feelings of frustration, but my natural optimism had always somehow managed to shine through. In the years following One Last Dance, though, that optimism began to desert me entirely. I just couldn’t figure out what the point was anymore, and I started drinking again in an effort to numb myself to the creeping feeling of despair. I’d lost the passion and purpose in my life, and couldn’t seem to get it back.

I had always felt like a lucky person, but that was being replaced by another feeling: that life wasn’t ultimately going to work out the way I’d always thought it would. It felt like this was what real life was—that I was finally growing up and facing the truth, and the truth was ugly. I had first felt it after the horse-riding accident, when I finally realized that no one could simply careen through life, completely invincible. For the first forty-six years of my life, I had really believed I was invincible—or had acted as if I was, anyway. When I suddenly realized I wasn’t, it was a huge blow. The same thing was now happening emotionally.

Everybody fails in life, but it’s when you can’t pick yourself up after failure that you’re in trouble. I felt like I’d tried to do everything right, but was still getting smacked down. And that made me reluctant to get back up again. Why should I, when the same thing seemed to happen no matter what I did? I hated feeling like the whiny actor—Why can’t I be more successful? Why can’t I get better roles? But for the first time in my life, I began to fear deep down that I would never bounce back again, that I had no control over my success or failure. And that’s a deadly feeling.

As I sank deeper into this hole, and drank more and more, Lisa got to the point where she didn’t even recognize me. I had always been resilient, but this person she was living with was beaten down, defeated. Work had always been my cure for feeling depressed, but even that wasn’t working anymore.

Lisa was struggling with her own rough patch. Seeing me in pain couldn’t help but cause her pain, too. And she also quit smoking during this period, which was about a hundred times harder than she expected, leading to increased feelings of frustration. We were quickly becoming like a couple of rowboats lost in the ocean, looking around for the safety of land but seeing only endless depths ready to swallow us up.

We’d always dealt with whatever issues came up in our relationship. But the biggest issue that cropped up between us in this period was one we couldn’t seem to get through. It had to do with a deep temperamental difference between us—the difference between how a Swayze deals with demons and how the rest of the world does.

For years I had been dealing with my demons—feelings of inadequacy, voices trying to undercut me, fears that I was never good enough. The natural instinct is to push them away or ignore them, but the truth is, they always come back. So instead of trying to defeat them, I’ve tried to use them, to harness that energy rather than denying it. It’s a delicate balancing act, trying to toe this line—I went to some very dark places, really struggling with myself, in my efforts to control these negative feelings. And just like all the Swayzes, I never could do anything halfway. When the demons came back worse than ever in this period, I plunged right down into the fray with them.

I found levels of bottom that I didn’t even know existed. It wasn’t just about drinking, it was about allowing myself to go to these darkest places, allowing myself to feel all the fear and anger and despair that most people spend lifetimes pushing away. Yet as deep as I went, I still felt I was in control. I knew I was dangerously close to the line, but I was choosing to be there.

But for Lisa, this was too much. Seeing me descend into these feelings was scary for her, and my responses to those feelings frightened her, too. There was a lot of anger during this period, and a lot of raw emotion that came out in sudden, jarring spurts. In Lisa’s eyes, I was going off the deep end, even though I didn’t believe I was. She was afraid one of us would end up dead, and she couldn’t take that feeling.

So Lisa made a decision. Without telling me, she packed a couple of suitcases and took off one morning before I woke up. She knew that if she told me she was planning to leave, I would have done anything and everything to try to talk her out of it, including throwing myself in front of the car to keep her from driving off. She didn’t want a fight. She felt she had to leave for her own sanity and safety, and she wasn’t about to put the matter up for discussion.

When I woke up and found Lisa gone, I was crushed. And angry. I couldn’t believe she’d left me, and I was terrified it would be forever. Lisa and I had been together for more than thirty years by now, and I couldn’t bear the thought of life without her. We had made it through so much—how could we lose each other now? I couldn’t remember a time in my life when Lisa and I weren’t side by side. And I definitely couldn’t imagine going forward without her.

Lisa didn’t go far, renting an apartment in the San Fernando Valley, about a twenty-minute drive from Rancho Bizarro. She didn’t tell anyone she’d moved out, and somehow, miraculously, we managed to keep it a secret from the tabloids and everyone else. We talked every day, and she often came out to the ranch for business. But she was absolutely determined not to come back until things had changed. She kept that apartment for a whole year, which we’ve never revealed publicly until now.

When Lisa left, I had to completely reevaluate my life. I was driving away the one person who had always stood by me, who had always loved me no matter what. I still didn’t know how to change what I was feeling, but there was one thing I could change. I stopped drinking after Lisa moved out, quitting cold turkey for the second time in my life.

The year of our separation was a period of really assessing myself, of learning how to bring myself back from the brink of despair. I was incredibly hurt that Lisa had left, but over time I began to understand that she wasn’t doing it to punish me. I began to realize that from her point of view, she’d made it for thirty years, and had gone farther with me into those dark places than most people would have been able to. And that she left only when she felt she had no other choice.

The anger and sense of betrayal I felt at first began to give way to more productive feelings. Rather than spending each day feeling either angry or sorry for myself, I thought about how I could make things better. And how I could win Lisa back.

It was a painful time, but it also taught me all over again how to deal with pain—how I could make it work for me rather than destroy me. Very early on, I had learned how to do that with physical pain. But now I realized that the tools and techniques you use for overcoming physical pain just don’t work with emotional pain. Slowly, during this period, I learned the tools and techniques for dealing with emotional pain.

In the midst of our separation, after I’d been sober a few months, I was cast as Allan Quatermain in King Solomon’s Mines. This was a godsend—a starring role in one of the great heroic narratives in literary history—and it saved my ass. The original King Solomon’s Mines was a late-nineteenth-century novel about a band of British explorers in Africa, and it had endured as a rollicking adventure tale. I was excited to play this courageous, horse-riding hero, and thrilled to be going back to Africa—a place where both Lisa and I had found such spiritual sustenance during Steel Dawn.

In Africa, I was back doing the things I loved best—acting in a period piece, doing stunt work on horseback, spending time in the beauty of nature. I started exploring the African bush, learning again how to live off the land and regaining that feeling of self-worth it always brings. The weeks we spent shooting felt absolutely restorative, as if a slate was being wiped clean. I began to feel again that sense of purpose and passion that I’d lost for so long.

Lisa and I spoke by phone every day, and toward the end of the shoot, she agreed to come to Africa for a visit. I couldn’t wait to see her, of course—but as the date drew near, I found myself scared, too. Because it had hurt so badly when she moved out, I subconsciously began protecting myself from the possibility that now she was going to leave me for good. I convinced myself that she was flying all the way to Africa to tell me she wanted a divorce, and braced myself for it.

When Lisa arrived, she felt that I was a little cold to her, and she had no idea why. I didn’t think I was being distant, but because I was waiting for her to drop the divorce bomb on me, I most likely was not myself. Ever since her response when I first asked her to marry me all those years ago, I had always feared that deep down, Lisa didn’t love me as much as I loved her. Over the decades I had gotten over that feeling, and I had learned to trust her. But when she moved out, it dredged up all those insecurities again, and feelings I had thought were long gone were now as fresh as ever. My excitement at seeing her was buried by my fear.

When a week passed and Lisa didn’t ask for a divorce, I was relieved. Maybe she was here just to be with me, after all. So I finally began to let my guard down and enjoy our time together, and when we went for a weeklong safari in Botswana after wrapping, things continued to get better. I was still scared, but as the days went by and we became more comfortable together, I began to dare to believe she might still love me, too.

Yet rifts as deep as the one we’d suffered don’t heal overnight. After we returned to California, Lisa moved back home with me, but our troubles weren’t over yet. We still weren’t really connecting with each other, and the longer that went on, the worse it seemed to get. It was as if we’d made the commitment to make it work, but didn’t have the spirit to follow through. Without the necessary nourishment, our relationship was dying a slow death right before our eyes. We wanted to stop it, but we didn’t know how.

We ended up in a frustrating pattern: Things would be good for a while, but then we’d go right back into the bad stuff. In Bulgaria, where I was shooting Icon, we had the best time we’d had in a while. I said to Lisa, “I’m falling in love with you all over again,” and we started talking again about adopting children. We kept thinking we’d turned a corner, but then an argument or angry exchange would plunge us right back down.

After I finished shooting the film Jump in Austria, Lisa and I moved to London for seven months, where I performed in Guys and Dolls in the West End. During that time, the friction between us grew worse and worse, until it was almost unbearable. We bounced between anger and despair, and our relationship felt poisoned by mistrust and bitterness. After we returned to LA, we had a particularly brutal argument that made it obvious to both of us that things couldn’t continue this way.

“I feel like you’re torturing me out of this marriage,” Lisa said to me, her eyes filled with hurt.

“I feel like you’re doing the same thing to me,” I replied. We stared at each other for a moment, but there was nothing more to say.

At that point, neither of us knew how to find our way back to the other. But fortunately, we were about to get some assistance—from a very unlikely source.

George de la Peña, who had costarred in One Last Dance with us, had become a dear friend since we made the movie. In 2007, for my birthday, he decided to give us a consulting session with a woman he’d written a book with. Elizabeth was a well-known psychic, and George swore by her abilities.

Lisa and I weren’t big aficionados of psychic readings, but there was no harm in getting a new perspective on things. I couldn’t tell you to this day if she has psychic powers—or if anyone does, really—but the evening she came to Rancho Bizarro, she started picking up on some things very quickly. Maybe George gave her some insight before she came over, or maybe she’s just an amazing reader of people and body language. But she cut through the bullshit right away.

We walked with her through the house, showing her each of the rooms so she could get a feel for our life together. As we walked through the dance studio, she stopped short. “There’s been entirely too much crying in here,” she said. I glanced at Lisa, but she was looking down at the floor. It was true, and we both knew it. The studio, which had once been such a happy place, was permeated with sadness.

We kept walking, and when we ended up in the office in the barn, she said, “Let’s sit down right here.”

She started talking. She talked about our horses, our furniture, the feng shui of our home. And then, suddenly, she looked straight at Lisa. “There’s something really weird happening,” she said. “You’re sitting right there, but it’s like you’re not really here.”

Lisa just stared at her. “Yes. You’re here, but you’re not really,” she went on. “It’s like you’ve checked out already.” And Lisa burst into tears.

Elizabeth turned to me. “She’s already gone,” she said. “You need to really look at what she wants, at how to fix this. Because she is out the door.”

I looked at Lisa, whose face was streaked with tears. “She’s right,” Lisa said. “In my heart, I’m gone. I’m gone.”

I felt the tears well up, too. What was Lisa saying? Had I really lost her for good? Was it too late to do anything?

“What do you want, Lisa?” I asked her. “What can I do?” She sobbed quietly beside me, and my heart just about broke open. I wanted to grab her, to hold her and never let her go, but all I could do was touch her shoulder gently and look her in the eyes.

And then a strange and wonderful thing happened. We looked at each other, and somehow we each suddenly saw once again the person we’d fallen in love with. I hadn’t been able to see that for so long, since we had so many layers of pain that had built up over the years. But in that one moment, instead of seeing someone we’d fought with, or felt angry toward, or resented, all of that simply fell away. I felt a surge of love for Lisa that I hadn’t felt in years. I took her into my arms and we cried together, our tears washing away the pain that had been keeping us so far apart.

We started talking, really talking, like we hadn’t done in years. When two people are at odds, sometimes the hardest thing to do is decide who will step through the door first to try to repair things. Too often, one person is ready to go but the other isn’t. But with the help of Elizabeth, Lisa and I came together again. We both opened our hearts at the same time, reaching toward each other in a way we’d all but forgotten. And at her suggestion, we each wrote “I will forget the past” ten times on a piece of paper, then buried those papers under an avocado tree in our yard. It was time for a fresh start.

People always ask us, How do we do it? How have we kept a marriage of thirty-four years and counting so strong? I don’t claim to have any great answers, but I do know one thing. Lisa and I never, ever stopped trying, no matter how bad things got. We never gave up on each other, although in our absolute worst moments, we came very close. If there was a way to save our relationship, we were going to find it. And the very fact that we both always wanted to save it meant that there was a way to do it. Because that desire is the key. As I said to Lisa not long after our experience with Elizabeth, just as an argument was starting to break out, “We’re stopping this right now. I never want to go back to the way it was.”

Our experience with Elizabeth was definitely life-changing. But the funny thing was, the next time we saw her after that, she got just about everything wrong—go figure. We have talked to her since then, and she amazed us once again with great insights and advice. But the only thing that really matters to us is that she helped us come together in a moment when we were both open to it. And we took it from there.

With our relationship back on track, we were ready and eager to face the world again. I’ll always be grateful that we were, because the next twist that came was the cruelest of all.


Chapter 15

With so few good movie roles available, I’d been looking off and on for a TV series over the past couple of years— but though I’d read tons of scripts, nothing was ever quite right. I had really enjoyed working on The Renegades and North and South, and knew if I could find a good character on a solid series it would be worth gunning for. Then, in 2007, my long-time agent, Nicole David, and manager for TV Jenny Delaney sent me scripts for two new series that both looked very good.

One of the two shows, The Beast, was about an enigmatic FBI agent named Charles Barker. Barker was a fascinating, layered character who constantly surprised me as I read through the script. I loved his world-weary persona, and the fact that he wasn’t your stereotypical good guy, but a complex and mature character.

I really liked the writing and the ideas on The Beast, but the production team was young and inexperienced, especially compared to the team for the other series. Going with the young, hungry show would be a risk, but ultimately I just liked the material better. There was something about Barker that really spoke to me, so in the end I turned the other project down.

We shot the pilot, and I knew even before seeing the finished product that The Beast was going to be really good. If it got picked up, we’d be shooting the full first season in Chicago, and both Lisa and I had high hopes that would be the case. So we went into the holiday period more optimistic than we had been in a long while—happy to be in love and excited about the future.

Then came that fateful night in Aspen. As we toasted the new year and I felt the champagne burn my stomach, I never could have guessed what lay ahead. I didn’t think my digestive issues and that strange burning sensation meant anything serious, even though I noticed that I had begun losing some weight, too. But I just gritted my teeth and made it through the holidays, assuming I’d start feeling better soon.

Back in LA a couple of weeks later, I noticed something else strange. When I went to the bathroom, which had become something of an ordeal over the past few weeks with all my digestive issues, things didn’t look quite right. It’s embarrassing to say, but my urine was very dark, and my stool was very pale. I walked out to the kitchen and found Lisa making a cup of tea. “Something really weird is going on,” I said, and told her what I’d noticed. She knew I hadn’t been feeling all that great, and she asked if anything else wasn’t quite right.

I walked to a mirror and peered at my face. “Do my eyes look yellow?” I asked Lisa. She came to look, and I pulled my lower lids down and rolled my eyes around.

“Yes,” she said. “They do. They look jaundiced.” Lisa’s not the worrying kind, but I could tell by the look on her face that she was concerned. “Let’s make an appointment for you to see Dr. Davidson tomorrow,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s really necessary,” I said. “I’m sure it’ll clear up.”

But Lisa was adamant. “This isn’t normal,” she said. So we made an appointment, then got online to see what we could find out about these strange symptoms I was having. We looked up jaundice and found a long list of things that could cause it, none of which sounded very good—from hepatitis to liver infection to cancer. All the same, we didn’t imagine for a second that I could possibly be that sick.

The next day, January 14, Lisa and I went to Cedars-Sinai to see Dr. Davidson. We described my symptoms, and after looking at my eyes he immediately ordered a batch of tests. CAT scans, blood tests, urine test—they put me through the works. He knew something was up, and a procedure called a bilirubin test soon confirmed it. My bilirubin levels were very high, which meant something strange was going on with my bile ducts.

We asked what might be the cause of high bilirubin levels, and he gave us a short list of possibilities, one of which was pancreatic cancer. But another was acute pancreatitis, which is still a serious illness, but treatable. “It’s probably pancreatitis,” I told Lisa, trying to reassure not only her but myself, too.

But later that day, a CAT scan revealed a mass on my pancreas. This was very bad news, though it still didn’t mean I definitely had cancer. To find out for sure, the doctors would need to do an exploratory endoscopic procedure, to get a piece of tissue for testing. Unfortunately, they couldn’t schedule the endoscopy until four days later—an eternity when you’re dealing with a fast-moving disease. We spent the next four days at home in a fog, trying to keep our emotions in check while inside we were starting to panic.

The endoscopy was scheduled for January 19. An anesthesiologist put me to sleep, and a gastrointestinal surgeon snaked a tube down my throat. He planned to insert a stent into my bile duct, to open it up and have a better look. But he couldn’t get the scope that far down, because my stomach was very enlarged. They would have to try again another time, using a different technique—but at this point, they were almost certain what was wrong with me. There were very few things other than pancreatic cancer that would cause my stomach to swell like that along with the other symptoms.

As I lay sleeping off the anesthesia in the recovery room, two of the doctors gave Lisa the news. “We need to do a pathology on the tissue to be absolutely certain,” they told her, “but we’re 99 percent sure that he’s got pancreatic cancer.”

Lisa later told me she went completely numb hearing those words. She didn’t trust herself to absorb any more information these doctors were giving her, but she knew it was critically important, so she managed to ask them to call her sister-in-law Maria Scoures. Maria is a respected oncologist in Houston, and Lisa needed her help to take in this news and help decide what to do next. The doctors got Maria on the phone, and she’s been a godsend for us both from that moment on.

Lying in the recovery room, I still had no idea what awaited me. When I woke up, I was suffering from severe enough cramps that the doctors ordered me to spend the night in the hospital. During the endoscopy, the doctors had pumped me full of air while trying to get the stent in, and having all that air trapped in my digestive system was unbelievably painful. They wheeled me into a hospital room and I tried to make myself comfortable, still groggy from the anesthesia.

Lisa came in to see me, but first she made a decision: She wouldn’t tell me about the cancer right away. She wanted me to have one last night of “normal” life—one last night of innocence before our hardest fight began. She told me she loved me, and spent the night by my side.

The next morning, the surgeon came in and woke us both up to give me the diagnosis. I don’t remember much about that conversation, but when he told me I had pancreatic cancer, my first thought was, “I’m a dead man.” The only thing I’d ever heard about pancreatic cancer was that it’s incurable and it kills you very quickly. I just stared at him in shock. I had gone in for a simple gastrointestinal procedure, then all of a sudden—surprise! You could be dead before springtime!

Fear sliced through me. What the fuck had just happened? I had been so excited about the upswing my life was on. Now it all seemed like a cruel joke. I couldn’t be dying—I had too much to live for! I just couldn’t face the idea that life as I’d always known it was over, that there was a disease inside me that would grow and mutate and eventually kill me. I didn’t know where I would find the strength to deal with it.

And neither did Lisa. She has always been so strong, so determined and capable. We had been together through so much. But after the surgeon left, she just broke down and cried. She crawled into the hospital bed with me, buried her head in my neck, and said, “I can’t do this, Buddy. I can’t do it. You can ask me for anything else, but please don’t ask me to do this.” I held her tightly and we wept together. She knew I couldn’t change anything about what was happening, but she was devastated.

She pulled herself together and has helped me through every aspect of this disease with good humor and boundless love. But at that moment, as she lay sobbing in my arms, I felt as alone as I’d ever felt. I knew I’d have to find a way to fight this thing, but the very thought of it exhausted me.

There was one last sliver of hope. If the cancer hadn’t spread at all, the doctors told us it might be possible to operate. But that hope came crashing down the next day, when another CAT scan showed that it had already spread to my liver. I had what they call Stage 4 cancer, the worst possible.

Lisa and I decided to tell only a few people about my diagnosis, at least until we knew for sure what my treatment would be and what my prognosis really was. We told our lawyer Fred Gaines, agent Nicole David, and my brother Donny. We especially didn’t want to tell my mother, as she was having eye surgery the next day and was supposed to try to keep her eyes dry—no crying—for a few weeks after the surgery.

Unfortunately, those morally bankrupt souls at the National Enquirer had other ideas. Someone in the medical field tipped them off, and a National Enquirer reporter showed up at my mom’s house about a week after my diagnosis. She opened the door to have a complete stranger ask, “How do you feel about Patrick having pancreatic cancer?” And that’s how she found out. For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone can be so cruel, so unfeeling, to do such a thing. But human decency is apparently an afterthought when there’s money to be made selling tabloids.

Lisa and I jumped right into action, learning everything we possibly could about the disease and how to treat it. Maria was a tremendous help, too—she was doing pancreatic cancer research of her own, and advised us on how best to fight it. From the beginning, we’ve done all our own home care—injections, intravenous nutrition, and everything else—because we didn’t want to have an at-home nurse. We wanted life to go on as normally as it possibly could, because I had no intention of staying alive just for the sake of it—I wanted to live and enjoy life rather than feeling like a full-time patient.

Before the news of my illness broke publicly, the A&E network decided to pick up The Beast for a full season. This was incredibly great news—but of course, they’d ordered those thirteen episodes without knowing their lead actor had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At first, I wasn’t sure I could go through with filming a full season of an action-packed dramatic series—I didn’t know whether I’d be healthy enough to do it. But very soon, I realized there was nothing I wanted to do more. And I made up my mind that I’d find a way, no matter what.

We got in touch with A&E to let them know about my diagnosis, and I sent along this message: “Don’t count me out. I can do this.” All I could think was, if I’m really going out, I’d rather go out on a high note, doing quality work I believe in. I loved The Beast, and felt that I’d done some of the best work of my career in the pilot. I really wanted to have the chance to explore the character of Charles Barker even further.

Once they learned about the cancer, the executives at A&E were under no obligation to keep their offer on the table. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to kill the series. But to their immense credit, they did not. We decided to see how my chemotherapy treatment went, and they’d make a decision after that. If I responded well and it looked as if I’d be healthy enough to shoot the series, they’d go ahead with it.

Television executives aren’t necessarily renowned for their generosity of spirit, but that decision by A&E president Bob DiBitetto restored my faith in humanity. It was such a decent, openhearted thing to do—and he kept his word. After a few months of chemotherapy treatment, when I was feeling pretty good, I invited the writers and producers to Rancho Bizarro. I told them I was excited to do the series and ready to go, and they called A&E right then to ask for the green light. We got it.

Chemotherapy was hell on wheels, and it got worse the longer it went on—but I knew if it was a matter of just pushing through all the pain and discomfort, I could do it. The cancer also caused all kinds of trouble with my digestive system, including bloody, painful bowel movements and debilitating cramps. I spent many nights curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor, desperate for the pain to pass. But although I felt nauseated, bloated, and cramped most of the time, there was at least one side effect of chemo I’d dreaded but didn’t suffer: I managed to keep my hair.

As Lisa and I headed up to Chicago to begin shooting in the late summer of 2008, I vowed to myself that no one on the set would ever know if I was feeling bad or in pain. I was going to shoot this whole series, doing my own stunts, right into the Chicago winter—and I wasn’t going to make a peep about anything having to do with cancer or treatment. If I had a 6:30 a.m. call, I’d wake up a couple of hours earlier to try to get my digestive system in order and make sure I was ready to go.

I stayed on that first chemo regimen for ten months, which is an incredibly long time—most people undergo a round of chemo for just a few months, as the side effects get cumulatively worse. And mine did get worse toward the end of shooting the season, but I undertook an attitude adjustment every single day, reminding myself how fortunate I was to be working on a project I loved, and willing myself to put one foot in front of the other to finish it, no matter how bad I felt.

Being on the set was incredibly energizing. I was happy to be working again, focusing on something other than the continuing fight against cancer. I worked twelve-to eighteen-hour days, jumping and fighting my way through action sequences and thoroughly enjoying bringing Charles Barker to life. There were definitely tough moments when I had to overcome pain, nausea, and fatigue. But some days were good. Once, after a crew member said to me, “I can’t believe you’re able to do all this,” I turned to Lisa and said, “I’ve worked with hangovers worse than this.”

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. If I was going to do great work on this series, I wanted to be 100 percent there. And if that meant dealing with extra pain, that was the price that had to be paid. By the ninth episode, I didn’t know if I could finish, as the bad days were really, really bad. I was upset with myself, angry and embarrassed that I might have overestimated my ability to push through. But quitting was not an option. I dug deeper—far deeper than I ever had—and pushed through to finish the season. In five months of shooting, I missed only a day and a half of work, and that was because of the sniffles.

I didn’t take on this challenge in order to become an inspiration to other cancer patients. But when reports came out that I was starting to shoot a new TV series, a full six months after being diagnosed with an illness that kills most people within weeks, we started receiving all kinds of letters and cards from people who found it inspiring. I’m grateful for the huge response from people, but really I just wanted to make a great TV show.

As always, Lisa was an equal partner in creating and honing the character I played. She spent the whole shoot in Chicago, and she also directed one of the thirteen episodes. Working with her again, and watching her craft what became a fantastic episode, was amazingly gratifying. We were in this together, in every possible way—just as we had always been.

It’s a fact that Swayze men have never lived to ripe old ages. My father died at age fifty-seven, the same age I am now. My paternal grandfather also died young, and most of my uncles never saw the other side of forty.

In some ways, I’ve always felt as if I was living on borrowed time. I’ve cheated death more times than I can count, from motorcycle accidents to horse accidents to the airplane incident to teetering on a ledge with David Carradine. There’s something in the Swayze makeup that loves risk, and God knows I’ve embraced my share over the years. After I passed the age of thirty with my body and mind still intact, I always felt I’d gotten away with something.

The months I’ve spent fighting this cancer have been an emotional roller coaster. There are days when I feel determined to live until a cure is found, and truly believe I can do it. And there are days when I’m so tired, I just don’t know how I can keep on going. But I have to. I have to keep moving forward as if there’s a long future for me. As if this is beatable. I’m not running around like some kind of Pollyanna—it’s more of a dead-set, clenched-jaw determination. I’ll just be damned if this son of a bitch is going to beat me. It’s trying to kill me, but I’m going to return the favor.

In all my life, I never gave up in a fight, starting from that day in junior high when five boys were whaling on me at once. And I’m not going to give up now.

I have so much to live for. So much I want to accomplish, so many things I want to explore. Since we’ve had our ranch in New Mexico, Lisa and I have been working on conservation and preservation of the land. We commissioned a two-hundred-year forest-stewardship plan that not only would maintain forest growth levels, but also improve them. Lisa and I are passionate about being good stewards of this beautiful land, and we want to share the knowledge we’ve gained with others, to help spread the word about conservation.

When we bought our ranch in New Mexico, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I swore when my dad died that I would one day own a ranch and return to my cowboy roots. I also swore I’d do everything I could to make him proud for the rest of my life. There’s no better way to do both those things than by keeping this land pristine and beautiful for generations to come. I am my father’s son, and I’m living the life he dreamed of having. In every way imaginable, it’s worth living for.

There’s also so much more I want to accomplish as an artist. I’ve been writing new music in the last few months, and am always looking at potential roles that come up. I still have the energy and the drive to take on new projects, and have no patience for anyone who suggests otherwise. Whenever someone asks me what I think my legacy is, I say the same thing: I’m not finished yet! My work is my legacy, and there’s a whole lot more I have to give.

And of course, there’s my relationship with Lisa. I can’t even begin to express what she has meant to me over the years. As a naïve and insecure twenty-year-old, I would never have dreamed that one person could find so much passion and so much loyalty with another. Lisa and I are a part of each other— I can no more imagine life without her than I can imagine living without my own heart. And feeling that love for her is that much sweeter after the hard times we went through.

In the summer of 2008, just before we went to Chicago to film The Beast, Lisa and I decided on the spur of the moment to renew the vows we’d made to each other thirty-three years before. We put the whole thing together in four days, and invited a handful of close friends and family members to join us. I rode in on a white stallion, and together Lisa and I stood hand in hand and recited the vows we’d each written. As she finished saying the words she’d written for me, tears came to my eyes.

While the future is an unknown, the one thing I do know is that I will love you. I’m very lucky to have found you in my life and am grateful that I have had the ability to open my eyes and see just what I have….

Because what I have—the love, the greatness and enormity of what I feel, informs everything around me, and brings me back to what I cherish most. And in cherishing the most there is for me, I cherish you more.

And then I spoke the words I’d written for her.

How do I tell you how lucky I feel, that you fell into my life? How grateful I am that you chose to love me? I know that because of you, I found my spirit, I saw the man I wanted to be. But most of all, you were my friend.

Together, we’ve created journeys that were beyond anything we could imagine. Journeys that dreams are made of. 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.

Even with everything we’ve been through, and everything we still are facing, it was one of the happiest days of my life. And it made me more determined than ever to have as many more beautiful days together with her as I possibly can.


Date: 2015-04-20; view: 1094

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Chapter 13 | Acknowledgments
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