Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Emergency Home Trip 2024 ✈ Goodbye Daddy

This is a trip report I wished I never had to write. As much as we hoped that this day would never come, it finally came... Living far from home, I knew there would be a day when I'd receive the dreadful phone call from home. With all the old people at home and dad's health condition this past few years, I was even more aware that this day could come anytime. Being aware of this fact had also made me more intentional about traveling home and spending more time with the family these past few years, and I am grateful I had the time and ability to do so when I still had the chance.

"Dearest Daddy, thank you for all that you've done for us all these years. Thank you for all your love and for always being our biggest supporter in every endeavor. While the past few years hadn't been easy on you, going through all these old photos reminded us of the cool, strong, and awesome dad you are, and we will always remember all the wonderful memories we had together. Saying goodbye is never easy but I am relieved that daddy can finally rest after fighting hard for many years. Daddy, we love you and you will be missed dearly♥" - Naughty girl

P.S. This was a video I had completed a few months back and finally published it on the day of dad's passing. I am glad I took the time to go through all these old photos during my home trip last May and compiled them into a video as a tribute for dad.

30 Jan 2024 (Tues): Huntsville
I had just returned from a work trip in Tampa the week before and was back working at home as usual. I saw mom's video call on Whatsapp around 12pm (2am Malaysia time). I wasn't thinking much at that time because I was working and even though she doesn't usually call at this hour, she had called at random hours sometimes. 

I wasn't having any work call at that time so I picked up her call and I remember the first thing she told me was that dad seemed to have left us. I could see 2 ambulance staff in the background doing CPR on dad, while mom gave me an update of what happened. I was actually quite calm during the call with mom, in a way because we were kinda mentally prepared for this day, and I was also trying to stay calm to keep her calm. 

I was on the call with mom the entire time the ambulance staff was doing CPR and when they concluded that there was no signs of life after trying for 10-15 minutes. Dad passed peacefully in his sleep on 31 Jan 2024 (Malaysia time). The staff asked us to call the police to certify dad's passing. Thankfully, big bro and SIL were there to help with the situation and took care of all the things that needed to be done next (e.g. going to the police station to get a report and made arrangements with the funeral company). We tried calling 2nd bro but couldn't reach him as he was asleep. 

While I was still on the video call with the family, I hopped on a quick call to inform my boss about the situation and that I'd need to take some time off to travel back to Malaysia. We were in the middle of busy season at work so there were a lot more coordination required to cover for me while I'm out. Thankfully, everyone at work was very supportive. 

While I was on the call with mom, I sent a message to hubby who was at work to inform him about the situation and he also informed his work about taking time off. Not to be morbid, but hubby and I had previously discussed about what we plan to do when the time comes (i.e. whether he will travel back to Malaysia with me). So the decision to travel home was quite an easy one as we had previously discussed about it.

After getting off the calls, I immediately started looking for flights. As mentioned above, we had been trying to be prepared for when this day comes, and this preparation included having the money and/or miles to book last minute flight tickets back to Malaysia. I knew booking last minute flights from US to Malaysia will not be cheap so I've been stockeing up credit card points for this reason. 

The cheapest roundtrip ticket departing within 24 hours would cost about $3,000 per person, that means $6,000 for both of us.

Fortunately, United had award space available both ways (nothing on American or Delta), and we had sufficient Chase Ultimate Rewards points that could be transferred instantly to United.

After confirming the flights and dates with hubby and the family, I used 231,000 United miles + $165 to book both our roundtrip flights on United, departing within the next 24 hours and would get us back in Malaysia 2 days later. This was definitely the most last minute flight I've ever booked. I spent the rest of the day packing our luggages, and handing over all my work on hand.

31 Jan - 2 Feb 2024 (Wed-Fri): Huntsville - Washington Dulles - San Francisco - Singapore - Penang
MIL came by in the morning for a quick visit then we took an Uber to the airport at 11am to begin our 33 hours journey on 4 flights across continental US and Pacific Ocean. 

Flight #1: 2 hours from Huntsville to Washington Dulles at 12.47pm.

Visited the Virgin Atlantic Lounge for a quick bite during our 2-hr transit in Washington Dulles.

Flight #2: 6 hours from Washington Dulles to San Francisco at 5.55pm. This flight was completely full.

Visited the United Club and had our dinner there during our 2-hr transit in San Francisco. I was able to access this lounge with my Star Alliance Gold and United Premier Platinum status. Jan 31 was the last day I had this status so I was able to get priority check-in, priority baggage, better seats, and lounge access for these flights. 

Flight #3: 17 hours from San Francisco to Singapore 10.45pm. This was the longest flight we've taken. Even though there were quite a few empty seats on this flight, there was one annoying cabin crew who was determined to NOT let anyone have a full row to themselves, and was busy moving people around before departure. Both of us had a row of 3 to ourselves. The flight was delayed departing from SFO as we waited for a number of passengers who connected from another flight.

We usually prefer Asian airlines for long-hauls because the service and food is usually better than American carriers. We were served 3 meals on this 17-hour flight and United's food wasn't great as expected, oh well. Since this was such a long flight and we had a busy week ahead, we knew we had to sleep as much as possible on this flight. Hence, I did the most Asian thing on the flight by laying a blanket on the floor and stealthily slept on the floor while hubby laid down on the 3 seats...lol!! We survived the long 17-hour flight and surprisingly we got quite a lot of sleep so that was a success.

We arrived Singapore late around 8.45am and had about an hour transit before hopping on flight #4: 1 hour from Singapore to Penang at 10am.

Arrived Penang safely at 11am. Thankful for a smooth journey. Our bags were out even before hubby got through immigration. 

Big bro and SIL picked us up from the airport and we made a quick stop at McD to pick up lunch before going home where the wake was held. We were reminded of how cheap McD is in Malaysia.

It had been 4 years since the last time hubby was in Malaysia and we actually discussed last year about the possibility of him coming back with me this year. While the circumstances of this trip wasn't one we wanted, we are glad we were able to make it home for dad's final journey.

P.S. On why we don't look sad and somber in the videos/photos...
- Yes we feel sad that dad's gone but we find comfort that he is relieved from pain and sufferings
- I choose to see this as a celebration of dad's life
- We are grateful to be able to travel home in short notice and to get back in time for the funeral
- Hubby was accompanying me on this journey
- We are glad there weren't any delays or issues with our flights
- Our natural reaction to the camera is to 'smile'
- "Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened"

2 - 10 Feb 2024 (Fri): Penang

Once again, not to be morbid but mom and I had previously discussed about where the wake should be held when the time comes, and we agreed on having the wake at dad's own house. Even though dad hadn't stayed here for the last 5 years, we thought it'd be appropriate for his final journey to be in a place he owned. Our family went with the Buddhist rituals and the funeral company did a good job setting up the place the next morning after his passing. As for his portrait photo, I had previously shortlisted a few photos for the family to choose and we chose this photo of dad from my wedding 10 years ago. The funeral company did a good job cropping and printing the photo.

Final family photo with dad. Dad was surrounded by people who love him dearly and whom he loved dearly.  Our family gathered for 5 days to pray and grief. I am thankful for an amazing partner and family who I could lean on. Glad that all of us were there to say our final goodbyes to dad. 

We were blessed to have family and friends who were there for us during this time, many who traveled near and far for the wake. While funeral is one of the few rare 'occassions' for family and friends to gather, we are nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to meet and gather. It was certainly a bittersweet gathering. Ah Ma was happy to see the 'ang moh' again after 4 years...lol!

The 'ang moh' gu jiong was popular amongst the kiddos...Uncle Daniel here, Uncle Daniel there. This home trip gave us the opportunity to meet baby Li Zayne for the first time. This boy was a koala bear.

I was impressed the funeral company arranged cook-to-order char koey teow and it was good!

We are also thankful to family and friends for sending many beautiful flower rifts, heartfelt condolences and 'pek kim'. Our family really appreciate them.

Rituals on funeral day

Thank you to all the family and friends who came for the funeral.

My memory of funeral band is the 'dong dong chiang' marching band type (from 20 years ago) and had no idea that they are so modern these days with a music band...with jazz drum sets, keyboard, guitar, and singer. They even asked us for a song list, which we chose dad's favorite songs. They were good but the singer 'saddified' the songs a bit too much trying to make us cry. That explains why few of us (including me) were wearing sunglasses.

I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude and compliment hubby for his amazing support and participation throughout the entire funeral service. Before we left the US, hubby asked me how a funeral is like in Malaysia. Honestly, I wasn't as familiar either because it's been way too long since the last funeral we had for a close family member (my grandfather, dad's dad) in 1999. I also wasn't sure if we were following the Buddhist or Taoist rituals. He actually googled to learn about both before we left the US, so he kinda knew what to expect and the rituals involved. As much as I could recall, funeral service can be quite overwhelming so I wasn't sure how hubby would react to this 'culture shock' as an ang moh, especially when I myself don't even know 100% what's gonna happen. Surprisingly, he was a good sport and fully embraced and participated in all rituals without reservation. Thank you hubby or all your support and for being there for me and my family. I <3 U. I am sure daddy is also happy that I found a good hubby.

I had no idea about all the rituals and 'laws' so we just followed instructions and did whatever we were asked to do. At one point, the staff gave hubby a black umbrella and before I realized what was happening, I saw hubby standing in front of the casket car... all by himself under the hot sun for a good 10-15 minutes sweating away and had no idea of what he needs to do next. I didn't know son-in-laws are supposed to be in the front of the procession so I didn't prep him for it beforehand. Since he was the only son-in-law, he was all alone in the front leading the entourage. It was quite a sight for an ang moh (male version of Mary Poppins) to lead a Chinese funeral procession...lol! 

Final goodbye at the cremation site.

Few more rituals after the funeral to bring the ashes and urn to the columbarium. I accompanied mom to chose and book the columbarium during my home trip last May, so we had one less thing to sort out during this time.

This home trip gave us the opportunity to spend quality time with the family...

Hubby getting lots of brownie points on this trip...bonus points for learning to play mahjong with the grannies. Glad to see hubby enjoying mahjong with the family despite the language barrier.

Ate out with the family and fixed our craving for Din Tai Fung. =)

Met up with friends for local delicacies. Hubby discovered Milo Dinosaur this trip and it quickly became one of his favorites on par with ice kacang...lol!

Mediterranean food at Dandy's

Fun times with the kiddos. Uncle Daniel continues to hold the popularity award. You'd think the kiddos are not as close to him since the last time they saw him in person was when they were 8 months and 1.5 years old....but thanks to technology, they know Uncle Daniel as the 'game uncle'. 

7 - 8 Feb 2024 (Wed - Thurs): Staycation @ The Prestige Hotel Penang

We had a Marriott 35,000 Free Night Certificate from hubby's credit card that was expiring on Apr 7 so we decided to use it for a staycation at The Prestige Hotel.

The hotel was conveniently located in the heart of Georgetown near Weld Quay. This is hotel is quite new and I remember it used to be under IHG, but it's now under Marriott.

Originals King - Room 302. The transparent shower was interesting...lol!

The room was equipped with Nespresso Coffee Machine and TWG Tea, a drinking water faucet, complimentary refreshments, old school snacks as welcome gift, and amenties that were arranged together like a puzzle.

Surroundings and facilities in the hotel

The Glasshouse restaurant...a tropical Victorian Eden

We were here for our complimentary welcome drinks and old school snacks

Sunrise view from the rooftop infinity pool

9 Feb 2024 (Fri): Chinese New Year
It has been 10 years since the last time I was back in Malaysia for CNY (last time was in 2014) as CNY always fell during work busy season. Unfortunately fortunately, our emergency home trip coincided with CNY, so we were able to be home this year to experience a bit of the CNY festive season. Even though our family couldn't celebrate CNY this year, I am grateful to be able to be back with hubby to spend CNY eve with the family. This was also hubby's first time in Malaysia during CNY.

CNY decoration at Gurney Plaza

CNY decoration at Queensbay Mall

10 years since my last reunion dinner with the family. 

First time ever to have all of Ah Ma's 3 daughters, 7 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren together this year. 

Mahjong session continues for the adults... a very lao juak (and chaotic) reunion dinner...lol!

All 4 generations enjoying fireworks to celebrate CNY

10-11 Feb 2024 (Sat - Sun): Penang - Singapore - San Francisco - Houston - Huntsville

After 9 busy days in Penang, it was time to say goodbye and fly back to the US. Thanks to the family for sending us off at the airport. It was a short trip but we are grateful for the quality family time.

Visited the Plaza Premium Lounge in Penang airport for a quick bite before our flight to Singapore.

Flight #1: 1 hour from Penang to Singapore at 4.25pm. We booked this Airasia flight for $65 for 2 using Capital One travel credit as we weren't able to find good routing on United departing from Penang. Got an Airasia ang pao as we were traveling on CNY day.

Our flight landed in Changi airport T4, and we took the aiprort shuttle bus to T2 to check-in for our United flight. We had a 6 hour transit in Singapore before our long flight.

The airport was decorated for CNY and we saw the Wonderfall and Dreamscape at T2.

After checking in our luggages, we walked over to Jewel to see the waterfall. Even though I've transitted in this airport multiple times in the past, this was actually my first time seeing Jewel. We were lucky to be there at the perfect time to catch the CNY dragon show at the Jewel. 

Spent the remaining 3 hours of our transit at the T2 SATS Premier Lounge where we had dinner and I took a shower before the long flight. 

Our flight from Singapore to San Francisco was delayed by about 2 hours. We were informed of the delay a day before our flight, which gave us time to think of plan B in case we miss our connecting flight in San Francisco.

Flight #2: 15 hours from Singapore to San Francisco at 12.30am. The flight wasn't full and we were lucky to get a full row of 3 each on this long flight...benefit of traveling from Asia to US on CNY day. 2 meals and 1 snack were served on this flight. We were both able to sleep for majority of the flight.

We arrived San Francisco 1.5 hour behind schedule, leaving us with about 1.5 hours to connect to our next flight. It was quite a rush but thankfully, everything went smoothly and we made it in time for our 12am flight to Houston.

Keeping track of our crazy connecting schedule for future reference:
10.25pm: Landed in SF
10.38pm: Got off plane and ran (literally) to the immigration
10.43pm: Got through immigration (thanks Global Entry)
10.52pm: Got both our check-in luggages and went through customs
10.55pm: Rechecked our bags
11.03pm: Got through security with TSA pre-check
11.10pm: Made it tou our gate juts as boarding started

Flight #3: 4 hours from San Francisco to Houston. Got the United Premium Plus seats for this flight.

Arrived Houston at 5.30am. Visited the KLM Crown Lounge during our 2-hour transit and had breakfast in the lounge before continuing on flight #4: 1.5 hour from Houston to Huntsville at 8am. 

That's a wrap for our whirlwind trip 12 days. We made it back home safely and we are grateful to receive these gifts and kind notes from family, friends, and co-workers.

There is never a good timing for the passing of a loved one, but I find solace in the good memories we had and for all the things I am thankful for:
  • Thankful that I traveeld home twice in 2019 (one with hubby) before the world locked down
  • Thankful that we traveled to Hawaii with dad in 2019 (dad's last international trip)
  • Thankful that I was able to take extended time off work each of the last 3 years (2021, 2022, 2023) to spend at least a month at home to care for and spend time with dad
  • Thankful that I was able to travel home twice a year in 2022 and 2023
  • Thankful that I was home to celebrate dad's (last) birthday in July 2023
  • Thankful that this didn't happen when we were in Antarctica
  • Thankful that this didn't happen a week before when I was in Tampa for work
  • Thankful that we had the emergency fund (and miles) for last minute flight home
  • Thankful for modern technology allowing us to travel across the world in 1.5 days
  • Thankful for our family and friends in the US and Malaysia for the support and condolences
  • Thankful for our work and supportive co-workers allowing us to take time off
  • Thankful for an amazing and supportive partner that I can lean on
  • Thankful that I captured precious memories with dad in my blog over the years to look back on 
"Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened"