Ms Wee Mei-Yi opens up about her grief and picking up the pieces.
Every now and then, eight-year-old Luca Choi would read his little sister her favourite bedtime stories. On other occasions, he would sit in a corner quietly looking at pictures and videos of her on his iPad.
He misses Zoe. If she were alive, she would have been five years old. She died together with her father Choi Chi Man, 48, and 160 other people on AirAsia Flight QZ8501 which crashed into the Java sea on Dec 28, 2014.
The body of Mr Choi – a British citizen who was director of an energy company – was not found until more than a month later, while the remains of Zoe – the sole Singaporean on board – were never recovered.
Losing her husband and daughter caused Ms Wee Mei-Yi unimaginable grief. But the 45-year-old marketing and business communications specialist was also determined to do whatever it took to show her remaining child Luca that his world had not collapsed.
Luca is today a healthy, sporty and friendly boy doing well in school. Until recently the deputy director of philanthropy and marketing at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Ms Wee is also pleased with the progress of her own recovery.
For a long time, she says, she couldn’t see beyond a day.
“But I’m determined to make mojitos from the lemons I’ve been given and I’ll continue to work on that,” she says. “I’m amazed at how far I’ve come.”
That realisation has prompted her to speak, for the first time, about her loss and how she is picking up the pieces. She hopes her story will help others cope with grief and tragedy.
“It’s about giving back to the community, in the light of what’s been happening in the world,” she says, referring to recent events like the Manchester and London terror attacks which claimed victims including children and parents.
Poised and articulate, Ms Wee has a quiet dignity and strength. Her voice rings with love, affection and, sometimes, merriment when she talks about her late husband and Zoe, showing that the darkness that ensued after their deaths had lifted.
But remembering them also brings on tears, a hint that their premature departures have left a void which perhaps will never be filled.
Life was kind to her before her tragic loss. The only child of a bank manager and secretary, she was a go-getting, independent spirit who did well at Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Anderson Junior College.
Friends and family reckoned that she was cut out for legal studies, given her excellent command of English and her ability to express herself clearly and cogently.
Ms Wee opted to read English literature and anthropology at the University of Western Australia instead. She went on to carve out a successful career in marketing and business communications, working for the likes of Gemini Consulting, Deloitte Singapore, ABN-Amro Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).
At one point, she was RBS’ head of change management and business communications for 15 markets across Asia.
She crossed paths with Mr Choi – who was born in Hong Kong but migrated to Britain when he was a child – at the turn of the millennium.
“You know that movie You’ve Got Mail? It happened just like that,” she says, referring to the 1998 comedy about an online romance starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
Mr Choi, then a new arrival in Singapore, had e-mailed a joke to her colleague who forwarded it to others in the office.
“It was a long e-mail. I read the first three lines and thought: ‘Why is he sending out an e-mail inviting people to his house when we don’t even know him?'”
So she dashed off a reply which went: “No, thank you. I don’t even know you and I’m also not available.”
A cheeky rejoinder came: “You clearly didn’t read your e-mail. And as for not knowing you, that can be easily resolved.”
They started “bantering” online and two months later, met for the first time at Que Pasa, a wine and tapas bar, on Emerald Hill.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” she says, adding that each did not know what the other looked like before the meeting. But they enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. One year later, they got engaged. In 2002, they tied the knot.
Their careers flourished and they spent the next few years on overseas postings, living in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beijing.
The stork delivered Luca when the couple were living in Beijing in 2008. They returned to live in Singapore in 2009, and had Zoe a few years later.
When the offer came for Mr Choi to become managing director of Alstom Power and oversee its power plant business in Indonesia, the couple decided to move to Surabaya in 2014.
Ms Wee and her children joined Mr Choi in Surabaya in September that year. She had planned to come back to Singapore alone on Dec 27 to help her parents with their home renovations.
“Chi Man then said: ‘Why don’t you take Luca with you and I’ll spend a few days with Zoe in Surabaya.'” But just past midnight on Dec 27, the couple decided Mr Choi and Zoe should spend “a couple of nice days in Singapore” too.
He couldn’t get tickets to join his wife and son on their Singapore Airlines flight so Mr Choi booked himself and Zoe on AirAsia Flight QZ8501 one day later. Ms Wee says quietly: “That was the first and last day Zoe had her daddy all to herself.”
Her tears start flowing as she recalls the events of that fateful morning. Her parents had gone to the airport to fetch Mr Choi and Zoe while she got Luca ready for a gongfu class he wanted to attend.
“Mum and Dad then called me from the airport and asked if I had received any messages from AirAsia. They said the arrival time had come and gone but nothing was showing on the arrivals board,” she recalls.
A sense of misgiving gnawed at her. Except for an SMS that Mr Choi had sent her earlier telling her how messy the boarding process was, she had not heard from him.
“I clung on to that message. I didn’t want to try and call.”
She adds: “In all the years that Chi Man and I were together, we always communicated. He would never leave me wondering. In retrospect, I knew. I was being hopeful but I knew.”
As she drove Luca to his class, she looked at him, safely buckled in the back seat of the car.
Although there was still no news about the flight, she wrestled with a dilemma: “Do I have a conversation with Luca now whilst I’m still clear, rational and, to a large extent, unemotional? If I do not do this now, I do not know what shape I will be in later.”
So she told Luca that the plane his father and sister were on had not landed as scheduled and that two things could have possibly happened.
“I was having this conversation with a five-year-old. I explained to him what hijack meant and obviously the second scenario. And he said: ‘Oh, like Malaysia Airlines?’,” she recalls, referring to the airline’s infamous Flight MH370 which vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
“I said ‘yes’ and he went very quiet. But I said: ‘Listen, we don’t know for sure yet. They’re trying to find out what happened.'” She then sat him on her knee in the car and, although not religious, said a quick prayer with him.
She suggested that he attend his class as planned while she went to the airport to find out what happened. When Luca next saw her at the airport, she was a wreck.
Mother and son talked about what happened again later that night in a room at the airport hotel.
“Just before he went to bed, he had a very short and painful cry.”
The next morning, Ms Wee told her loved ones that she needed to sort out Luca’s schooling. He had been accepted into a primary school here but the family had to decline the offer when Mr Choi’s Surabaya posting came along.
“At that point, I was already clear in my head that my life had changed forever. I was determined to build a positive and secure life for Luca and I needed to put things in place… School was important, it would provide routine and security.”
She broke down before she could explain the situation to the school principal who happened to be in his office. He assured her that Luca would have a place when the school term began in January.
The following months passed in a blur. She made several trips to Surabaya, accompanied by officials from Singapore’s Transport and Foreign Affairs ministries.
“They sent a team of more than half a dozen to help me deal with Indonesian officials and search authorities. I realised for the first time the value of a Singapore passport; I received so much help and for that, I’m forever grateful.”
Friends helped to inveigle a visit to the command centre for the search operations.
Coping with double traumatic bereavement was hellish.
“There were days when I was just crying in bed. I didn’t even know how to be an individual, let alone a mother to Luca,” she says.
Three weeks after the accident, she started seeing a psychiatrist.
“For about 20 weeks, I saw her once a week. I still see her once a month now. Without her, I won’t be where I am today,” says Ms Wee, adding that Luca had regular sessions with a counsellor too.
Her innate determination and feistiness kicked in. She worked hard and did things, like exercising at the Botanic Gardens, which reminded her of happier times and gave her peace of mind.
“I had clear milestones and specific dates to achieve them,” she says.
She understood how important it was for her to preserve happy memories and set the vision for a new life. She set up a new home for Luca and herself, and in July 2015, put part of Mr Choi’s ashes at the top of a castle in Provence. When he was alive, her husband had always joked about being a postman in Provence because the hours were good and people were always nice to postmen.
By August of the same year, she joined the Asian Civilisations Museum to manage fund-raising and revenue.
She saw her job as her way of giving back to Singapore. In the 18 months on the job, she raised $1.9 million for the museum. She left in March this year because she felt it was time to start another chapter in her recovery.
The worst is over but there is still pain, she says.
“There will always be a small percentage of unresolved grief. Zoe’s body was never found. There’s no getting over that.”
There are also issues which have not been settled. A promised visit to the crash site has not materialised.
“Going there to say goodbye proper will help a lot,” she says.
Neither has compensation been worked out. “There is no appropriate compensation. No amount will bring them back,” she says. “But all the families are seeking fair compensation. We hope to get financial support from AirAsia to get back on our feet and to get back to the financial position we were in before the accident.”
For now, building a positive and fulfilling life for Luca and herself remains key.
“He cannot, just from one episode, have the perspective that his life is forever crippled. Despite what has happened, life has many opportunities to offer.
“Just look at how far we have come.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline ”I couldn’t see beyond a day”.