I first saw the itinerary for this cruise online while I was in Mexico in January 2016. It was everything I ever dreamed of in a trip to Australia and New Zealand including 5 ports all along the eastern and northern coast of Australia with an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. That alone would have sold me but in addition, this itinerary included Bali and Komodo Island in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Singapore, places that hadn’t been on my list previously but immediately attracted me.
Scheduled to set sail from Auckland, New Zealand the following year on February 18, 2017, it looked like the perfect winter getaway from Iowa and the website showed the starting price for the 19-day cruise was only $2009 per person. I was so excited I called Norwegian Cruise Line right then to book it. This was my dream trip.
The price for the two of us including taxes and fees for an ocean-view cabin was just under $5000 which I thought was a bargain. When you book a cruise over a year in advance on NCL, you pay a deposit and pay the balance three months before the sail date. Until you pay the full cost, you can cancel the trip with no penalty. Our final payment was due in mid-November of 2016.
Normally, when I book a trip I’m so excited I start planning immediately but this time, it seemed like events conspired to keep me from doing much advance planning. I booked in January 2016 and had other trips already scheduled for March, April, May, August, and October. I thought I’d do more research following those trips but then in September, I spotted an affordable Viking River Cruise for the end of October which distracted me again.
I did call the cruise line in September just to confirm my price and found an even better deal which saved me a couple hundred dollars and included pre-paid gratuities, a substantial savings of $12.50 per person per day.
Anyway, when I called in mid-November to make my final payment, I had only done a little advance planning so I got busy and booked our flights to Auckland and back from Singapore for $1755 each. We would depart from Minneapolis on February 13 and arrive on February 15 allowing us 3 days to see Auckland and environs before our cruise departure. Our return flight on March 11 allowed an extra day to tour Singapore. I also reserved pre and post-trip hotels in Auckland and Singapore. And most importantly, I reserved the excursion to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.
Over the following 4-6 weeks, I researched our ports in earnest to determine which excursions we should book and which we could do better on our own, starting with Auckland, New Zealand. In January, I ran across an article on the internet about the mechanical problems experienced by our ship, the Norwegian Star, in December while cruising an itinerary in Asia. The problems resulted in an altered itinerary and angry passengers who gathered in the atrium to protest the captain’s refusal to meet with them. I called NCL, not because I thought they could tell me anything, but more to register my concern. They assured me the ship was fixed and our cruise would not be affected. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.
Meanwhile, we spent two weeks in Mexico in January and returned to learn my mother had been ill with the flu while we were gone. When I talked to her, she warned me not to come over to avoid getting sick before our next trip. I continued to check in with her and she didn’t seem to be improving but I knew her husband was taking good care of her. Finally, after a trip to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. I went over to see her and was deeply concerned by how ill she was. She assured me the antibiotics would put her on the road to recovery soon.
During this time, we received a revised itinerary from the cruise line because the ship continued to have problems. I was disappointed to learn the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; Brisbane, Australia; and Bali were canceled but fortunately, Arlie, Australia, the port for the Great Barrier Reef was still included.
The day before our scheduled departure we went to Des Moines to visit our two sons and daughter-in-law and returned that night to learn my mother was in the hospital. The following morning, I raced to the hospital to see her. She was sitting up in the chair and looked much better but she was still wracked with coughing spells during our visit. We left for the airport, however, feeling comforted she was in the hospital where she would receive good care. My brother, Paul, promised to check on her daily by phone and keep me informed by email.
I called my mother from our first stop at LAX before our 2-day flight to Auckland. She told me they had withdrawn fluid from her lungs, she felt 100% better, and she expected to go home the next day. I was enormously relieved.
Our flight was uneventful. We departed from Minneapolis on February 13 with stops in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia and arrived in Aukland, New Zealand on February 15. We crossed the international date line losing an entire day which happened to be Valentine’s Day. (How memorable is that?)
The morning of February 16 (the 15th at home), I woke up to an email from my son, Brian, telling me to Face Time my brother. Paul told me the fluid from my mother’s lungs had been tested and indicated stage 4 lung cancer. They assured us, however, she had about 6-9 months and they would devise a treatment plan. Meanwhile, we would Face Time with my mother every day while we were gone. With this bad news on my mind constantly, we continued with our plans to see New Zealand before our cruise. (More on what we saw in future posts.)
We arrived at the cruise port to board the ship on February 18 (17th at home) where we experienced near disaster. When we finally reached the front of the line to check in, we were asked for our visas for Australia. VISAS???? We didn’t know we needed a visa to get into Australia! We had just stopped in Sydney on our way to New Zealand and didn’t need a visa. How had I missed this requirement? The cruise line accepted no responsibility to inform passengers in advance and I had missed it. Well, we moved to another line with several hundred new friends to apply online for an Australian visa. We were toward the front of the line but it wasn’t moving at all due to a variety of factors including but not limited to a slow internet connection, too few computers, and operator inexperience (aka elderly cruisers with few computer skills). At one point, two new friends, Michelle and Debbie, and I left the cruise terminal in search of internet access, found it, but still couldn’t get the program to work and approve our visas. So back to the line we went where we stood in line for hours. We finally did get the requisite visa and checked in.
While all this went on, my stress level increased due to a text from Brian.
While I was worried, I wasn’t totally panicked… yet. When we finally boarded the ship we went straightaway to the internet people on board to get my account set up. (I had 250 minutes to use during the cruise to check in by Face Time with my mother.) As we set sail, Brian told us that my mother’s cancer was even worse than initially thought.
The next morning we arrived in Bay of Islands (which had been restored to our cruise itinerary) and had an email telling us they were discontinuing all treatment and my mother had just 7-10 days to live. I was in total shock. By happenstance, we arrived at a historic church just as the service was beginning. After crying copiously throughout the service, I knew I needed to talk to my mother and find out her wishes. If she wanted me to come home, that’s what we would do. When I talked to her, she said, “Come home.”
That was easier said than done when you’re on a ship on the Tasman Sea three days from port. I checked flights from Sydney to Minneapolis and found they would cost around $1200 each. We went to customer-service on the ship, explained our situation, and told them we would disembark in Sydney. I asked about calling Delta Airlines and, as they put the call through, I told Jim I forgot my credit card in our cabin. As he ran to get the card, I explained my situation to Rakennya with Delta in Atlanta. She was able to credit our flight from Singapore and book a flight from Sydney for an additional $224 each. Jim returned to the service desk to tell us the key card wouldn’t work in our cabin door. They rekeyed it and off he went again down one floor and about a block down the hall. I tearfully explained the problem to Rakennya and she soothed me by saying, “It’s ok, I’ll stay here as long as necessary. I’m not hanging up.” Jim came back again, still not able to open the door. This time they told him housekeeping would meet him there. When housekeeping finally arrived and couldn’t get in either, they had to call security. The problem turned out to be a dead battery in the door. (Who knew they had batteries?) When Jim finally returned with the credit card, I’d been on the phone with Rakennya for over 45 minutes. That woman was a saint.
We had three nights on board before we would reach Sydney and get our flight home. We Face Timed with my mother when we got up each morning which was noon of the previous day at home. All my family was with her, both her children and grandchildren, none of whom live in the same town but they all managed to get there in time to say their goodbyes. We talked to them, too, and they would ask, “How’s the trip?” and we would respond everything was beautiful but we just wanted to get home. During that time we also met several people on the ship who were lovely and understanding. I was, frankly, a mess and my dream trip had become a nightmare.
We thought we still had plenty of time to get home and say our goodbyes in person until an email from our son, Michael, told us on February 21 (the 20th at home) she was comfortable but no longer awake. When we called, he told us it was time to let her go. She died at home later that day, surrounded by her loving family. It was just one week after we left home and two days before we returned.
Today, over five months later, I can still hardly believe it. I often think, “Oh, I need to call my mother about…” Then I realize she’s gone. I miss hearing her soft southern drawl and the way she said my name. I even miss how she would say the most outrageous things and then look at my husband and say, “Isn’t that right, Jim?” I miss her every single day.
Dear Laura, I’m sure this was so hard to write. New Zealand and Australia was our dream retirement trip which we took. Given your memories, it will be hard to overcome the thoughts that enter. I remember your mom and wish you comfort – as she would. We hope to see you soon. Deb