Nocturne by Helen Humphreys

nocturneA “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by or evocative of the night.

In her memoir of the same name, Helen Humphreys grieves her brother Martin James Humphreys by writing directly to him over 45 chapters — one for every year of his short life.

In July of 2009, after complaining of a backache and some acid reflux, accomplished pianist and composer Martin is diagnosed with stage 4B pancreatic cancer. (There is no 4C.) He dies on December 3rd of the same year.

Pancreatic cancer is an especially aggressive beast. My mother-in-law died of the same disease almost as quickly as Martin (diagnosed in April, 1997, after being unable to beat a persistent cold, she passed in October of the same year). You are well and then you are terminal. She died only four years into our marriage. One of my biggest regrets is the time I didn’t get to spend with her — she was a beautiful human being.

This book is close to home in more ways than one. Martin dies at age 45 — the very age I am now. Helen Humphreys grieves her one and only younger brother intensely. The existence of  such a profound and loving brother / sister relationship, at this point in my life, is completely foreign to me. My younger brother (born the very same day a decade after Martin James Humphreys) has been estranged from my parents for almost a decade. Either one of us could die of pancreatic cancer in between the superficial birthday and Christmas greetings we exchange and the other would never even know, much less grieve. Their friendship and intimacy is like a foreign language being spoken before my eyes: it’s baffling and incomprehensible to me.

Helen Humphreys sees the absence of her brother everywhere she looks. She quotes American composer John Cage, whose words ring true to me as my thoughts return to my own brother, who’s alive, but essentially gone:

“What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.”

— John Cage

Nocturne took me on a voyage to a foreign land I didn’t expect to enter; I read it in 24 hours — perhaps my version of language immersion.

Visit Helen Humphreys’ site to learn more about the book and listen to Martin playing Chopin’s Prelude 20 from Opus 28. (.mp3)

— February, 2016

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Krista Stevens

I'm a runner, reader, writer, and editor.

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