Losing a Loved One in the Valley of the Kings — Luxor, Egypt

“Kids, I have bad news,” Annie said soberly after reading her Wechat messages. “Zoe is sick. Xiao Xia said that after seeing the veterinarian, she has not been eating or drinking and is losing weight.”

Annie continued, “At the vet, they took her blood for testing and Zoe got really scared. After that she seems to be worse. The result of the test showed that something is wrong but the vet seemed not to know what he is doing. Xiao Xia said that the vet was flipping through medical books to understand the test result. Just the test cost RMB750 already.”

“Can we call the doctor that used to see Zoe? I don’t want her to be scared again…” Joani said almost bursting into tears thinking about the emotional and physical trauma Zoe might have just gone through. “Can we fly back to China now?”

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It was Nov 23rd. We got the fateful Wechat message from Xiao Xia while traveling along the Nile in Aswan, Egypt. Zoe has been sick before. She had a surgery many years ago to take out tumors in her uterus. Zoe is close to 11 years old, which is over 60 years in cat years. The last few months, Zoe had become more and more picky about what she eats. Xiao Xia, who is pet-sitting for us in Kunming, had been more than patient in trying different food for her to eat. Just the day before, Xiao Xia placed three different types of food in front of Zoe for her to choose. Xiao Xia had been taking care of Zoe even more patiently than we would have.  She even took one week off of work to take care of Zoe.

The next afternoon, we prepared to visit the Temple of Isis and the Tombs of the Nobles around Aswan.

Xiao Xia loved and took care of Zoe so well.
Xiao Xia loved and took care of Zoe so well.

“I think I will stay in the house,” Joani told us few minutes before we were about to leave.

Throughout the morning, all of us felt down as well, not sure whether we should ask Xiao Xia to bring Zoe to the doctor again or for Zoe to stay home to recover, hopefully. Knowing Joani’s feeling, I decided not to push her to come with us and let her rest at the apartment that we had rented through AirBnb. We ended up only going to the Tombs of the Noble as there was not enough time. The sunset view on top of the tombs were one of the most beautiful I had seen anywhere. We all felt good to walk outside and to enjoy such majestic sceneries. On top of this, I got another WeChat message while we were visiting the sites.

The sunset view over the Nile on top of the Tombs of the Noble was breathtaking.
The sunset view over the Nile on top of the Tombs of the Noble was breathtaking.
Sunset at the Tombs of the Noble over the Nile was breathtaking.
Sunset at the Tombs of the Noble over the Nile was breathtaking.

“Good news! Xiao Xia said that Zoe started to drink by herself again. Although she hasn’t eaten yet, she has not thrown up for 2 days. Today she walked around, stopped by Paz’s bed, and also went on top of her favorite scratching box,” I announced to the family happily.

Zoe went over to see Paz even while she was sick.
Zoe went over to see Paz even while she was sick.
Zoe like to sit on her favorite scratching box.
Zoe like to sit on her favorite scratching box.

We were all gladden by the news, especially Joani. We knew that it is possible to survive without food for a while but no one survives long without water. Since it was Thanksgiving Day, after our 3AM trip to Abu Simbel Temple 250km south of Aswan near the border of Egypt and Sudan, we went shopping as a family to cook a big Thanksgiving meal. We bought two chickens, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, egg plants, mayonnaise, chips, and a big box of ice cream for the special meal. Olivia and Joani were really happy because everyone was into celebrate Thanksgiving, making it feel special. Since Olivia was born on Thanksgiving Day, this day was even more special.. Everyone helped out to make the meal, except for me as I was having a fever.

Abu Simbel Temple, carved out of the mountain, was one of the best preserved temple in Egypt because it was buried under sand.
Abu Simbel Temple, carved out of the mountain, was one of the best preserved temple in Egypt because it was buried under sand.
We celebrated Thanksgiving in Aswan with two chicken, mash potatoes, and ice cream!
We celebrated Thanksgiving in Aswan with two chicken, mash potatoes, and ice cream!

We shared our thanksgivings during the meal.

“I am thankful dad is so generous!” Joani shared. “He bought us a big box of ice cream. We never even have that in Kunming. He’s really changed.”

We all laughed as we enjoy the delicious fried chicken, ice cream, and chips. The first 20 minutes of every meal, it is usually quiet as we concentrate on eating and asking others to pass the food to us. Only after we all had some food in our bellies, do we usually start to share.

“I am thankful Xiao Xia is taking care of Zoe,” Annie shared.

“I am thankful Zoe seems to be better,” Olivia added.

Sailing on the felucca was a highlight of our trip in Egypt.
Sailing on the felucca was a highlight of our trip in Egypt.

The next day, we started our 3 days, 2 night felucca boat trip along the Nile towards Luxor. On the boat, there was no internet so we had no further news of Zoe’s condition. Sailing down the Nile was so relaxing and beautiful. We all agreed that it was one of the highlight of our one year trip.

“Zoe is not doing well,” I told the children after I saw the WeChat message at the end of our boat trip. “Xiao Xia said that last night at 9PM, Zoe threw up twice in a row. She threw up some liquid that looked like the nutrition fluid Xiao Xia fed her. This morning at 6AM, she threw up again, except this time there was nothing for her to throw up. Xiao Xia wanted to know what she should do?”

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It was Nov 29th, six days after hearing the initial bad news. We just arrived in Luxor, the former ancient capital of the New Kingdom and populated densely with temples and tombs from dynasties all more than two to three thousand years old. Luxor can be divided into the East Bank and the West Bank. Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple are the two must see sites on the East Bank, which was where we stayed. The West Bank has many famous tombs because the sun sets in the west. The Valley of the King, filled with 62 royal tombs from dynasties past, is located here. During our travel in Egypt, we had not seen any ancient palaces but we had visited tombs after tombs. As soon as a future king is born, the building of the king’s tomb would begin. They didn’t build palaces to last but they built tombs to last for eternty. It was interesting to see how the pharaohs were so focused on their life after this life, and rightly so. At the Cairo Museam, we saw even mummies of various animals such as crocodiles, and even cats. Similarly, our family had been pondering on the same subject, death, as well.

The Karnak Temple in Luxor was the grandest of all the temple we went.
The Karnak Temple in Luxor was the grandest of all the temple we went.

“We don’t know what to do as well…” I texted back to Xiao Xia.

We did a video call with Zoe that night by calling Xiao Xia  Although it was painful to see Zoe lying there with no energy, we were moved with joy whenever we heard any faint meow from Zoe. Miraculously through the advent of technology, I felt I was there next to Zoe even though I was worlds away. We cooked our own Chinese hotpot for dinner that night.

Through video Wechat, we spoke to Zoe and saw her for the last time.
Through video Wechat, we spoke to Zoe and saw her for the last time.

Let’s play a game,” Olivia proposed while we were all in the kitchen helping to prepare the Chinese hotpot. “Let’s go around and say something we are thankful for until someone couldn’t think of anything anymore.”

“I am thankful for Evelyn who gave us the hotpot sauce,” Annie shared first.

“I am thankful for ice cream!” Olivia smiled.

“I am thankful for Xiao Xia for taking care of Zoe,” I went next.

“I am thankful that we got to see Zoe through video even those we were so far away,” Nathan followed.

We went around and around and shared, except for Joani who didn’t want to join. Tasting the long missed taste of Sichuan numbing spices, eating Nestle ice cream, and watching a new Korean drama, Pinocchio, briefly took our minds from thinking about Zoe.

The next morning on Dec 1st, Xiao Xia texted again,”I am really worried for Zoe. Yesterday, she went inside the cat sand and just stayed there as if she had no energy to come out. She tried to throw up three to four times and didn’t sleep the whole day and still didn’t want to drink any water. She seeming to have no more strength and is meowing in great pain inside the cat sand box. I can’t bear to look at her.”

Zoe couldn't get out of the cat sandbox.
Zoe couldn’t get out of the cat sandbox.

“Here is a photo of Zoe in the cat sand box. I am sorry that you have to see this…” Xiao Xia texted as she sent over a photo of Zoe lying on the cat sand.

At the hearing of the latest news, all the children became depressed again. Originally, we were planning to visit the famous Valley of the Kings. But Olivia felt God wanted her to stay in the hostel room for the day to rest. Joani laid in the hostel bed and cried for two hours and was angry at God for allowing this to happen. Nathan sat on the roof terrace staring at the setting sun, which happens to be the symbol for afterlife in ancient Egypt. Besides dealing with the possibility that we might never see Zoe, we were dealing with other pains as well. Joani accidentally broke the screen of her precious iPad. Nathan’s new favorite camera was stolen from his waist pouch by two professional thieves that waved a scarf in front of him to distract his attention. Olivia had been feeling dizzy since the felucca boat trip. Annie was dealing with a major life crisis with one of her best friend. Our host family in Nepal had their laptops, iPhones, and iPads stolen while they were sleeping the day before Thanksgiving. I ripped a hole in my favorite pants and I was depressed that everyone was depressed.

“How did your parents comfort you when you were sad,” Nathan asked me when I sat next to him on the rooftop terrace. “I can use some comfort right now.”

At that moment, I couldn’t remember how my parents comforted me. My mind was so confused at that moment that I didn’t know what to say except to sit there staring out into empty space…I missed another opportunity to show my love to Nathan.

“Can you send me photos of Zoe?” Joani texted Xiao Xia.”Also some videos as well.”

Zoe and Paz have been companion to each other for more than 7 years.
Zoe and Paz have been companion to each other for more than 7 years.

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No one was in a mood to see the Luxor Temple but since that day was the last chance I will have I decided to go nonetheless. Olivia graciously offered to go with me to keep me company. It became our one-on-one date.

“I don’t think we like Luxor,” Olivia said to me as we walked towards the Luxor Temple. “Well, at least now you know what’s it like if you or mom died…”

For a few second, I felt an emotion as if I was attending my own funeral…

We went right before sunset because the Luxor Temple is especially beautiful when lit in the dark. We spent close to three hours at the Luxor Temple looking for clues to answer the 10 questions in the Geocache (see geocaching.com). That day, the sunset was brilliant with wisps of clouds that fluttered with a flood of red, orange, and light blue hues. The wall relief carvings, large granite statues of Rameses II, and sandstone pillars seemed so majestic when shoned by hundreds of floor lights.

The Temple of Luxor was magical with the lights and pink sunset in the background.
The Temple of Luxor was magical with the lights and pink sunset in the background.
The Temple of Luxor was spectacular at night as Olivia and I went on our one-to-one date.
The Temple of Luxor was spectacular at night as Olivia and I went on our one-to-one date.

“Do you think Zoe died yet?” Joani asked later that night.

“I don’t know, Joani. I have not heard from Xiao Xia,” I replied knowing inside that I was afraid to ask Xiao Xia.

“It’s already 3AM China time,” Olivia said. “I am sure if Zoe died Xiao Xia would have told us already. I think Zoe is still alive.”

With that thought and that glimmer of hope, we all went to sleep.

At 6AM on Dec 2nd, I woke up to use the toilet. I saw a WeChat message on the lock screen of my iPhone. After one look, I sat on the ledge of the bathtub. I had trouble standing. Zoe passed away…

Joani buried her face in the blanket. Olivia sat in the bed and cried. Nathan was tearing as he lean against the bedroom wall. We were all in mourning.

“Can we have a devotional sharing on the roof top?” Olivia proposed.

After we all gathered on the rooftop with the morning sun shining on us, Olivia shared, “I feel God told me that Zoe wants us to know that she knows that we love her very much and she only wishes that we know she loves us too.”

We had a devotion on the rooftop after learning the death of Zoe where we shared our feelings.
We had a devotion on the rooftop after learning the death of Zoe where we shared our feelings.

Olivia’s words felt like a soothing cream over our deepest wound of not being able to be with Zoe because we were traveling.

Annie also shared what she heard from God through her friend, “Chee Shia texted me this morning and reminded me that it is not a coincidence that this is happening while we are in Luxor, among the ancient tombs of pharaohs. We are to stand up against death and instead celebrate life. For today, instead of sadness, why don’t we celebrate Zoe’s life by being happy for her and for all the happiness she had brought into our lives.”

“Let’s dress in our best clothes when we go to the Valley of the King today,” Olivia proposed. “To celebrate Zoe’s life.”

“Why don’t we build a stone memorial for Zoe in the Valley of the Kings. I think it would be special for Zoe to be remembered among such famous tombs of the ancient past, among kings and queens,” I proposed as well.

In front of the Valley of the Kings, where many pharoahs hid their tombs under the pyramid-shaped mountain in Luxor.
In front of the Valley of the Kings, where many pharoahs hid their tombs under the pyramid-shaped mountain in Luxor.

So in our best clothes we headed towards the West Bank where the Valley of the Kings is located. Valley of the Kings is in an isolated valley under the mountain peak of Al-Qurn that looked very much like a pyramid and it has 63 magnificent royal tombs from the New Kingdom period (1550-1069 BC). The famous tomb of King Tut whose treasures are displayed in the Cairo Museum was discovered here 90 years ago intact. We felt like children going through the movie set of Indiana Jones, as we “ooh” and “ahh” at the bright color wall frescos and relief carvings of the tombs, some looking as if they were just painted yesterday. The Tomb of Horemheb was not finished so we got to see the various stages of decoration from sketching in red grids to chiseling at the outlines. The Tomb of Tuthmosis III was hidden in the hills between high limestone cliffs and reached only via a steep staircase, trying to thwart the cunning of the ancient thieves. Inside, there are fake doors and high passage ways meant to mislead potential robbers. The walls had more than 700 gods and demigods in stick men figures which reminded us of Chinese calligraphies on the wall. We were so fascinated by all that we saw that we began to laugh and joke did not keep thinking about Zoe’s death. While resting there, Nathan read Psalm 23: “…Even though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me…”

“Guys, I feel guilty,” Joani said to us while we were walking from tombs to tombs. “I am laughing and enjoying myself. But Zoe just died. Why am I not as sad as I thought I would be?”

“Joani, it is okay. You already cried for four days. Today, we decided to celebrate the life of Zoe. So we should be happy for Zoe. She is not in pain anymore,” Annie comforted Joani.

“We haven’t build the stone monument yet,” Olivia reminded us.

“Yes, let’s each take one stone from the ground and pile them on top of each other, with each stone represents each of us,” I instructed while we were outside the tomb of Tuthmosis III (#34).

So we each picked a stone that we like and we piled them on top of each other by a side ledge close to the entrance of the tomb. We took photos with the stone monument and made heart-shaped hands to show our love for Zoe.

We each stacked one stone on top of each other to build a stone memorial for Zoe at the Valley of the Kings.
We each stacked one stone on top of each other to build a stone memorial for Zoe at the Valley of the Kings.
In front of the stone memorial we made for Zoe, we gestured our love for her with our hands.
In front of the stone memorial we made for Zoe, we gestured our love for her with our hands.

That night we went back to the hotel and took turn sharing our favorite memories with Zoe, especially how she always wait for us at the door and how she wanted us to stay with her when she gave birth to her kittens. Zoe even wanted us to take care of the kittens for her by bringing them to us on our bed! Joani collected photos and videos of Zoe from all of us and played a memorial slideshow on her iPad to celebrate her life. As a symbol of joy, we bought another carton of mango ice cream and ate it as we watch Korean drama. And that was how we ended the day.

We ended the day of celebrating the life of Zoe with a big fish meal.
We ended the day of celebrating the life of Zoe with a big fish meal.
We watched the photo slideshow of Zoe made by Joani as a celebration of her life and what she meant to us.
We watched the photo slideshow of Zoe made by Joani as a celebration of her life and what she meant to us.

Here in Luxor, we lost, and at the same time celebrated, a loved one among the tombs of ancient legends.

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