Review: Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss by Shirley Melis

★★★★½ Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Los

Business and travel writer Shirley Melis experiences love and devotion for two amazing men in her life and suffers the loss of both in her poignant memoir Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss.

Honesty is the hallmark of this memoir, a paean to the best of relationships beset by the inevitability of death. Two years after the sudden loss of Joe, a fellow writer, political activist, and her husband of thirty years, Melis arranges to meet an old acquaintance and recent widower for a possible new start. She is urged on by a coterie of old friends. The date is a dud but on the same trip she meets John, a photographer, aesthete, and “renaissance man” who almost immediately falls in love with her.

International travel, passionate emails, and small gifts spur the romance. Marriage soon follows. But a dark cloud hovers over their idyll: John has a rare form of cancer, though it is in remission when he woos and weds Melis. He believes he can keep it at bay with a positive attitude, so refuses to dwell on the implications. When it reappears, many desperate months are spent seeking relief and hoping for another remission. Travel, as far away as South Africa, seems warranted in the quest for a cure that does not come. Making the most of the limited time they have together, and nursing John, become Melis’ interlinking obsessions.

Demonstrating her mastery of the writer’s craft, Melis delves deep into her own tormented psyche to unveil her memories of the double tragedies she has endured. We watch as she takes painful but necessary steps, such as change of residence to erase the redolence of the lost spouse. She assesses her grief and in doing so the book can be enormously instructive for those who may have been in a similar situation, which will help these readers mourn but press on with living.

Melis brings very powerful insights into the decision making process of caring for a gravely ill loved one. She is often frustrated with the healthcare system, and even hospice staff, who may offer confusing and contradictory messages and prevent family from spending precious last days and hours with the dying.  The memoir is peppered with lively conversation and the wry observations of a worldly-wise intellectual.

When Melis’ story comes to a close, one is left with the possibility for yet a new beginning. Her purpose in exposing her closely held sorrows is two-fold. Writing will be a form of catharsis for the author, as she well realizes: “Through tears and sodden tissues, I kept hitting the computer keys.” But she is also “looking for answers” by reliving the joy of having, and the sadness of losing, two good marriages. Her answers can and doubtlessly will provide inspiration to other people steeped in grief and wondering which way to turn, who may feel delivered by the author’s freedom to love more than once.

Banged-Up Heart is a harrowing read at times, but ultimately illuminating and inspiring. Though most geared towards to those readers who have faced similar adversity, it has a powerful message about love and second chances for any reader.

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Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss