“Banged-up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss”, a memoir by Shirley Melis, tells the story of a strong, resilient as she copes with loss, love, and life. Melis, was in her mid-60’s, just getting over mourning the sudden death of her first husband when she meets another love of her life, John. She and John, recently retired to pursue a dream to become a successful photographer, have a whirlwind courtship. John lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Melis lives outside of Washington, DC. He courts her via email and long weekends spent together in her condo. After Melis proposes to John during a two-week visit, he talks her into retiring to travel the world with him and to pursue her dreams of writing books. After an exotic safari to Africa as their honeymoon,they make plans to travel to places like the Galapagos Islands, France, and across the world.
The second half of the book takes a serious, deadly turn. John had mentioned at their first meeting that he was battling a rare form of cancer, but that it seemed to be under control. The cancer comes back with devastating affects about one year into their relationship. John’s struggle against the inexorable cancer is more of a delaying tactic than a life-and-death struggle. Melis has her own struggles. She is totally wrapped up in John, his fight, and the dreams he won’t live to realize. While supporting John’s medical needs and wishes, she has to deal with the logistics of caring for a tall man who is being debilitated by illness while battling with insurance company and medical and care institution bureaucracies. And there is the issue of having to take care of her own health and mental well being.
The part that hit home with me was Melis’ struggles with the realization that their dreams of living out their golden years together will not be realized. They will run out of time before John’s dream of having his own gallery show of his photographs can be realized; the trip to the Galapagos Islands they had planned for the fall will not happen; their dream of publishing a book of his photographs accompanied her writing will not happen.
But Melis survives. After his passing, she finishes furnishing John’s house in Santa Fe and splits her time between Santa Fe and Reston. She works with a local gallery to mount a small show of John’s photos. And she goes on the trip to the Galapagos, by herself. Melis is scarred by the loss of two husbands, one totally unexpected and one, while not as unexpected, probably more traumatic and crushing.
While we often think of people, especially woman, in the 60’s and older as being weak and somewhat frail, Melis disproves this idea. She comes out of her experiences bent, maybe, but certainly not broken. Is she “stronger” for the experience? Nobody is stronger for having gone through what she did. One has to be strong, maybe unknowingly, to survive such an ordeal. And Melis demonstrated this inner strength. She is a survivor and seems to be doing quite well. She has had a long-time plan to write a book about strong, thriving women in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. “”Banged-Up Heart” shows that she would be a good person to include in the new book.