Lake Tasman Iceberg & Mt. Cook

Photo by D.C. Nobes

Her Last Birthday

D.C. Nobes

Those last months had an idyllic start. After six months away, she was finally home. It was late January, mid-summer, and we headed south. I was supervising fieldwork. She came along. Helped do odd jobs that needed doing.

The days were long and hot, with temperatures sometimes over 35°C, alleviated only by the occasional thunderstorm. She loved the warmth, but that heat was extreme at times. It was dry—high alpine dry. The grass was thin through the gravelly soil. We worked at a steady pace but usually finished in the late afternoon after a day in the heat.

A week after we arrived, it was her 52nd birthday. Her preceding birthdays had not been pleasant. The previous year, she had been in the hospital. The year before that, she had just warred through a major surgery and was passing the time alone in a motel room. This year was different.

Approaching storm, Mackenzie Plateau

Thunderstorm over Mackenzie Plateau

Mackenzie Plateau sunset

The day before her birthday was clear and sunny, as usual. After dinner that night, we cleared everything away, sipped our teas, our beers, our whatevers, and watched the light fade from the sky. The sunset was spectacular; it was a good clear night for star-gazing. Just past the new moon, the night was dark, and the only light was from a few street lamps and the surrounding small houses.

We found the Southern Cross, above the pointer stars in the southern sky, right across from Orion in the north. Bit by bit, the Milky Way became more visible. The Pleiades appeared, the Seven Sisters rising in the sky. We even saw the Magellanic Clouds—inky blots amongst the drapery of stars.

As it became darker, the stars were clearer and more numerous. A sudden shooting star and a satellite passed overhead. We lay back, stared at the sky, and counted—one to Jon, one to Tracey, one to me, one to her. Meteors and satellites set amongst the stars. It was easiest to see them when we didn’t focus too closely on one part of the sky. Instead, we lay back and let our eyes softly take in the whole arc of the night sky; then the shooting stars would appear in one or another corner lighting up our eyes. We would then shift our focus quickly to that moving spot of light.

We lay like that until midnight when the rest of us softly sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Jon and Tracey retired to bed, but we stayed for a bit longer snuggling and looking at the sky. She was calm but rapt. “This is the best birthday in a long time,” she said. We went to bed, snuggling through the night.

The next day, we got a bit of a late start and ended a bit early on yet another scorcher of a day. She and I showered and dressed up a bit. We wandered over to the town centre to that one particular restaurant we’d found, with outside tables that were perfect for a warm summer evening dinner, and ordered the sushi appetiser—divine! I then had the grilled smoked salmon steak, made using local salmon from one of the fish farms in the hydroelectric power canals. She had the grilled ribeye steak—medium-rare, just the way she liked it. She couldn’t finish it, so I helped her. I can’t remember if we had dessert, but I remember we were tempted. Their meals were so filling that we rarely needed dessert.

We then strolled back to the house we had rented for the summer. It was another lovely night, and finally a memorable birthday for her. But there was more to come.

The others had to go back to the city the next weekend; she needed to go back as well to continue some process she had to follow. On the way, we decided to go on a boat tour of the large melt lake at the end of the glacier. She wasn’t feeling one-hundred percent, but we decided to go anyway. She staggered and stumbled along the path. At one point, she simply fell over, and I was worried that she had had a stroke. But we walked along, my arm around her, and she insisted that since we had come this far, we were going to do the lake tour. Somehow, we got to the lake and the boats, donned our life jackets, and got seated in the rubber boats.

And she was transformed.

The scenery, the exhilaration, suddenly energised her. Her smile could have lit a small city. What joy and vitality she felt! We journeyed up and down the lake, stopped and walked on a large iceberg, gazed at the surrounding glacier-clad mountains. It was magic.

At one point, we went right up to an iceberg that had popped up from the bottom of the lake just that morning. It glinted clear blue in the sunlight, and the warmth of the day was melting the ice. She had an almost-empty water bottle, which we filled from one of the myriad streams flowing from the blue ice. Oh, it tasted so clear, fresh, clean! Her shining face spoke volumes.

The tour seemed to go by so quickly, and yet we had seen so much. The walk back was easier than the walk in, although she was still a little unsteady. We went to a café with a view of the mountains, especially the main peak, and had a nice small dinner before driving home. We sat there through the closing hours of the afternoon, watching the sun sink behind the mountains.

As we drove down the hill towards the highway home, we stopped to look back. She got out of the car and danced, with life, love, and joy, and the mountains in the background. It was a joyful wondrous magic time. And we were happy.

She died 11 weeks later.

Photos by D.C. Nobes

Clouds clearing - Mt. Cook Park (NZ)

Mt. Cook Park crags with fresh snow

Tasman Lake decaying iceberg

Layers in ice of TL iceberg

TL iceberg & Mt. Cook

Edge of Tasman Lake iceberg

Colours deep in ice of Tasman Lake iceberg

D.C. Nobes is a physicist, poet, and photographer who spent his first 39 years in or near Toronto, Canada, then 23 years based in Christchurch, New Zealand, 4 years in China, and has retired to Bali. He used to enjoy winter, but admits that he doesn’t miss the snow or the cold. He thinks almost all poetry is meant to be read aloud. His poetry and photography have been published widely.