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I am sitting on a stool here at the Cebu International Airport having the first of a series of beers while waiting for a delayed flight for Manila. I arrived this morning from Davao for a quick meeting with representatives from overseas Filipinos in Qatar who are planning to put up a Medical Mission Group Health Cooperative in Qatar and possibly in the Emirates also. It went quicker than I expected because of the horrid Cebu traffic situation that worsened with the closure of one of the Mandaue–Mactan bridges. I decided to forego the de rigueur post conference beer and was transported to the airport earlier than planned to avoid the afternoon rush traffic.

And as I sit here bantering with the counter girls, my thoughts pull me back again and again to Gina. I had tried unsuccessfully to push her away from my mind since yesterday when I heard the news. In vain. There is no getting away from it. Now I must deal with it. But I really do not know how. So as I often do when I hurt: I write.

Gina is coming home. As she promised me when she left for America – oh, about a lifetime ago. I remember, she did not really want to leave for USA.  But it was an unspoken promise she made her parents when she took up nursing at the San Juan de Dios College in Manila. So she did. But she vowed to come back as soon as possible. For good.

And she is.

Our Gina, with the light brown hair.

I was a medical student in UP when I first met her in Talibon in one of our family’s then infrequent trips to Bohol. She was a 14-year-old high school student who wore shorts and t-shirts like a boy and moved and behaved like one too. I was fascinated with her. Because I thought she looked like me when I was fourteen. That was, of course, not too farfetched. After all we were first cousins and our fathers, Papá Etok and Papá Diong, bore an uncanny resemblance to each other, like two peas in a pod.

I met her again when I was already a resident doctor in surgery in PGH and she was a very competent staff nurse in San Juan de Dios Hospital. She just walked into my life one day. And never walked out.

We became inseparable. Weekends when she was off duty I would fetch her from her San Juan de Dios dorm. She would come out of the dorm, dressed like I was: sneakers, blue jeans and white t-shirt. We never planned to dress the same way. We just did. I wore my hair long and she wore her hair short. That meant we wore our hair the same way. Then I would make my rounds in the surgical wards of PGH with her tagging along. We were often mistaken for twins – fraternal twins, since we were not of the same sex. But the resemblance was too uncanny for some of the doctors. Even our moves mirrored each other, not to mention our reactions and facial expressions and eventually, our choice of words. Our closeness was too uncomfortable for some of the nurses and most of my girlfriends, that some were insanely jealous of her. But she gloried in their jealousy, teasing them by staking her claim on me as I made my rounds with her affectionately clinging to my arm; even if it was clear that she could not have been my sweetheart since she resembled me much more than any one of my sisters.  But she was more than a sister to me. She was me. In the female form.

Weekends were something to look forward to if we had the time, meaning neither one of us was on duty. We would go for dinner and take in a movie and she would sleep over at the apartment with my sister who was going to college at Maryknoll at that time. Alex was taking Law at UP. We all had fun together and in the morning, we would all pile into the car to drive her back to San Juan de Dios hospital, all the time planning for the next weekend together again.

But sooner or later, she had to leave for States. And as she went through all the necessary paper work, it was clear that she did all that with a heavy heart. She really wanted to stay. She enjoyed her job here as much as I did mine. Of course she knew how I felt about doctors and nurses who left the country to serve the health needs of the rich Americans, but I was not very vocal about it when she was around; even if I knew she shared the same opinion I had. It was not really her personal choice to leave.

When we took her to the airport, she was in tears. She promised that her stay in America would be very short and that she would be coming back soon for good. But I knew in my heart that the promise was hard to keep; and knowing that each way taken leads to other ways, I doubted she would ever come back. Soon enough she adjusted to the typical life of a Filipino nurse in the States, got married and settled down to raise a family of beautiful talented children in New Jersey. I would get a scholarship to Europe to train further in surgery then go back to Davao to help fight a war against Marcos and as a result develop the concept of health cooperatives; then eventually go around the country to help establish more of the same.

But now and then, I would dream about Gina with the light brown hair and she always appeared to me in the same outfit: sneakers, blue jeans and white round neck t-shirt, clinging affectionately to my arm as we made rounds on my patients in the PGH wards, to the intense jealousy of some of the nurses.

I met Gina again more than 20 years later in America.  I was able to visit their place in New Jersey and spend a night with them. How we had both changed! She was a typical housewife keeping a neat home for her doctor husband and raising very intelligent American kids. I was no longer doing surgery, after having given up my private practice in the Philippines to help set up cooperative hospitals all over the country.   As a matter of fact, the reason I was in America was because I was invited by the Filipino Expat communities there to talk to them about the concept of Health Cooperatives as it developed in the Philippines.

Much later back home, when I learned that she was discovered to have late stage II breast cancer, I was devastated. I went into panic. Then later, denial. Although I learned of her remission, then later of her unfortunate recurrence and metastases, I tried to have little to do with the present Gina because I resolutely kept the picture of the Gina I knew with the light brown hair in sneakers, blue jeans and white t-shirt, in my mind and in my heart.

A few days from now, Gina will be coming home. For good.

She is keeping her promise.

But I will be missing her even more than ever –

Our Gina, with the light brown hair.

[Dr. Jose “Ting” M. Tiongco, chief executive officer of the Medical Mission Group Hospitals and Health Services Cooperative-Philippines Federation occasionally writes a column, “Child of the Sun” for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Dr. Tiongco is author of two books, “Child of the Sun Returning” (1996) and “Surgeons Do Not Cry” (2008)]

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