“It’s more fun in the Philippines”, the tourism banner proclaimed. As I walked through the Ninoy Aquino airport, I wondered what my two-week vacation would bring.
I have gone back to the Philippines for short vacations over the years. Of course, vacations always excited me, but this time, I was coming back for several reunions. The grand family reunion, the college and high school reunions. Like going back in time, to recapture old memories with family and friends.
The past was coming back full force with all its memories. We have led separate lives, gone on to different pathways, but we were ready to reminisce our younger years. Frankly, I was apprehensive as to who I will be seeing after all these years.
And through my college friend Althea who’s now the Chief Nurse in the military hospital where I was once a student, I have also been slated to speak at an Emergency Preparedness symposium. Just a few months ago, I reconnected with Althea through Face book. The miracle of social media. Reach out and touch someone.
Coming back to the hospital where I first met Sammy, my one-eyed soldier. The one who sang “The Skyline Pigeon” to me when I was a 19 year-old student nurse, twenty-five years ago.
On a cold November day in New York, six months ago, nostalgia crept in as I watched a Sam Milby film on TV. The Filipino actor’s uncanny resemblance with Sammy made me catch my breath and I felt my heart fluttered, as it did when I took care of Sammy in the Plastic Surgery ward.
Was it because it was Veteran’s Day that I started to reminisce about my Sam Milby look-alike soldier?
Sammy’s left eye was enucleated from injuries sustained in the battlefield in Southern Philippines. But despite the injury, I felt drawn to this handsome young soldier, his good right eye as beautiful as it could be, even made more special because he lost his left eye in service of country.
Although nothing untoward happened during my clinical rotation at the Plastic Surgery unit, there was apparent awareness of each other, an attraction that never had a chance to prosper. I was a nursing student, he was a patient. Our worlds were not supposed to come together.
Just before my month-long clinical rotation was finished, Sammy confided his feelings for me, but he conceded that I needed to follow my American dream. Much as I was enamored with him, I realized that I had to leave.
Because I wanted to explore the world and because I wanted more for myself and my family, I said goodbye. Just like the skyline pigeon in the song that he sang to me. And so, in a few years’ time after graduation, this skyline pigeon flew away to the distant lands. I have never heard from him again.
And now, I’m back at the same military hospital. It was ironic that Althea worked there now. Two days ago, we sat together at our college reunion and talked about my presentation. I attributed her exuberance to the upcoming event at the hospital that she had organized.
I have been teaching emergency preparedness to my nurses in my hospital in New York. My audience today will a combined group of nurses and doctors. I would be sharing my knowledge gained from years of disaster management classes and actual experience volunteering as part of the Medical Reserve Corps and a few disaster relief groups to Haiti.
The hospital had a facelift. Now, another impressive building stood on the right side of the big compound. A full-service hospital with 1,000 beds to serve the injured soldiers; it is now a modern, fully-equipped hospital; so different from the quaint hospital I knew 25 years ago.
I smiled at a group of student nurses who passed by me. They looked immaculate in their nurses’ uniform and starched apron, white nursing caps, and dazzling white shoes. I heard them chattering about their new assignment and their cute clinical instructor.
I remembered my student days; those carefree days, of new discovery, of new experiences, and budding love. With our stiff aprons, blue and white sheer sucker uniforms and white nurses caps, we breezed through the years with carefree equanimity and optimism, fully aware that the real life of nursing would be a lot different.
Then, an image of Sammy as he surprised our group with a song at our going-away party brought a sensation of regret for that interrupted romance. He had a beautiful baritone voice, haunting in its earnest sincerity. I guarded the secret of my feelings to this man, and only wrote about our story in a blog, many years after the fact.
I met Althea in the hospital lobby. She looked different from the happy-go-lucky student nurse I knew. Tall and slim, she looked authoritative in her military uniform. I forgot she’s now a Lieutenant Colonel; all the servicemen bowed in deference as she passed, and they eyed me, a stranger, in my power suit and high heels.
I caught my image in a mirror. Not bad for a 45 year old, but too old for these servicemen. With my short hair with brown highlights, and my trim body (thanks to the Zumba classes), I looked years younger, modesty aside.
But I didn’t come here looking to flirt with anyone; I had been divorced for ten years and the memory of the heartache was enough to turn me wary of romance. My son was still in 2nd year of college, majoring in Biology, my future doctor. He was unable to come for vacation because of school.
Althea and I were walking down the long corridor leading to the Administrative Offices when her cell phone rang. She excused herself and moved a few feet away to accept the call. I entertained myself by looking at the massive murals of Philippine landscape that adorned the hospital walls.
“Hi, Jo.” I knew the voice, but I didn’t turn around right away. I was sure I was just imagining it; that I was so caught up in the emotions of my return to the hospital that I would conjure up the voice that had filled my dreams in the past.
He cleared his throat, and I turned around to face Sammy. After all these years.
If this was a movie, this would have been in slow-motion. I looked up to his face as he towered over me. And I whispered his name in recognition, “Sammy.“
His expectant face lit up, as if he was holding his breath and did not want to assume that I will recognize him. He gave me a most beautiful smile. Breath-taking.
The years had been good to him. He looked as handsome as I remembered him. He still had an eye-patch on his left eye, but the same beautiful, long-lashed brown right eye twinkled in amusement at my startled gasp. What was it with that pirate look, I thought. It gave him a dangerous, exciting look.
Sammy stood tall and distinguished-looking in his military uniform. A full-fledged colonel. We both said the words, “Kumusta ka?” And we just stood there looking at each other. All those years apart, and all we could say was “Kumusta ka? (How are You)”.
We both chuckled, and then he softly hummed the song by Nonoy Zuniga; a whimsical take of that awkward moment when former lovers meet after years apart. and they both become tongue-tied.
Ikaw ay walang pinag-iba,
Ganyan ka rin nang tayo ay huling magkita
Tandang-tanda ko pa habang ako’y papalayo,
Tinitingnan kita hanggang wala ka na
A whirlwind of emotions kept me speechless. My heart was beating fast, and I felt like a nineteen-year-old again.
Althea’s sense of timing was perfect and prevented me from embarrassing myself with a senseless remark. She came back from her phone call, and, without any sign that she noticed anything unusual at the sight of us just staring at each other, introduced me to the Chief Medical Officer of the military hospital, Colonel Dr. Samuel….
Sammy nodded to me, and shook my hand, and whispered “Later.” It sounded like a promise.
I did not know how I managed to go through my one-hour lecture. The auditorium was filled to capacity with nurses from the different units in the hospital, as well as a good number of medical doctors. Teaching came natural to me, and pretty soon, I had engaged my students in my presentation.
I was supposed to spend lunch in a small catered affair at the administrative offices together with the rest of the speakers, but I was ushered by Althea’s secretary to a waiting Mercedes outside the lobby. Sammy was at the driver’s seat. He had changed to a crisp, nicely-pressed Barong Tagalog in deference to the hot weather.
Inside the air-conditioned car, Sammy’s smile made my heart melt as he said, “Welcome back, Jo.”
“I asked Althea for the privilege of your company, Jo. “, he explained. “I hope it’s okay with you.”
I nodded my agreement, secretly doing a high-five in my mind. I fumbled with my seat belt and he reached over to attach it. My cheeks felt hot at the closeness, but I managed to maintain a calm facade, despite my turbulent emotions.
Surreptitiously studying his profile, I decided that with his salt-and-pepper hair, his firmer jaw and his air of confidence, he looked more like George Clooney now. Gone was the self-consciousness of his younger years, when he was still a man coming to terms with his injury.
He looked like a man secure in himself, who had achieved far beyond than any other man in his league. He wore success like a second skin.
The years apart fell away as we slipped into the easy conversation that we’ve always had when I was the student nurse and he was my patient.
Sammy told me that he went right to medical school after he was discharged from the hospital. He had been outfitted with an artificial eye, but did not feel comfortable with it, and instead opted for an eye patch. He recounted that he had never married; had two long-term relationships but had never married, although he has two grown-up sons who both finished college.
It felt natural to talk to him about my own life, and my failed marriage. He seemed to enjoy my stories about my close relationship with my son. The ride to the restaurant seemed short, and we were both reluctant to leave the car.
I could not remember much about the restaurant, except that it was quiet, with subdued lighting and that we were seated at a secluded table with a grand piano at the side. It was romantic.
The food was excellent, but we hardly touched it. There was an undercurrent of excitement that brought a flush to my cheeks. Was it because he kept looking at me with such fierce yearning? Or was it me looking at him with hungry eyes?
After the dessert, Sammy pulled out a bouquet of roses from an extra chair. Did he order it in advance? He tentatively reached for my hand. I was surprised, but I did not pull my hand back. I was past the age of innocence, and I welcomed this new beginning.
We were being swept by a force much stronger than ourselves. I felt powerless to resist the pull of his smoldering eye; I just felt that the moment was right, and that twenty-five years apart just vanished, and we were at an important crossroad of our lives.
“I have been waiting for this moment, Jo. I never thought I would ever see you again.” Sammy’s sad smile brought me back to my clinical rotation in the Plastic Surgery unit when he sang Elton John’s song to me.
He continued, “I’m good friends with Althea, but I never knew that you were classmates, until she started talking about your college reunion. I discreetly asked her about her classmates, and then saw an old picture of you in her Face book account.“
I couldn’t help laughing at that, and we soon were doubled up in laughter as he recounted also joining FB just so he could browse my own account. He had conspired with Althea to invite me to the Emergency Preparedness symposium.
I feigned annoyance, “Hmmph, I should have made my FB setting private.”
He snorted at that, “I also found your blog post about me.”
I must have looked shocked at his revelations, because he looked alarmed, probably thinking that he had pushed the limits. I was just completely overwhelmed, but I reassured him by squeezing his hands. All those feelings had rushed in, but I was excited at the chance to be with him again.
Sammy stood up, and led me to the piano. As we sat together at the bench, he asked, “Remember this?”, and proceeded to play “our song”.
Elton John’s song is not a love song, but at that time, just like as it was twenty-five years ago, My Skyline Pigeon felt like an expression of love that could not be denied anymore.
I felt tears falling down my cheeks. Here I was, sitting beside this man, and I did not want to fly away again. After all these years, our shared passion came back unbidden. I had survived being alone for many years; my friends had often complimented me for my strength against adversity. I was at peace, and happy being with my son.
I had resigned myself to a lifetime of being alone. But until now, I never realized that I had an empty space in my heart. I thought I would not feel loved again. I had long ago given up hope that I would find the courage to fall in love again.
Here was our second chance at happiness. What was important was that we found each other after twenty-five years. It was destiny.
As he sang to me, Sammy’s face looked radiant, and full of love. The magic enveloped us, and I did not care that we were a middle-aged couple, and that we lived several continents apart.
After the last note, Sammy tenderly dried my tears and held me close. And then, he kissed me. It was meant to be.
I thought, “Oh God, please, do not let this be a dream.”
NOTE: Part 2- Just a figment of my very bold imagination. What if? LOL.
Part 1- Actually happened . I did not have any contact with Sammy at all after we parted ways.
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