Gina with her siblings (Ernie is at lower right) and mother Conchita (with hat). “They told her, you cannot restrict your love to your family alone. You must give your love to the entire world.”
Culture Spotlight

The last gift Gina Lopez left for her brother Ernie

He was more an athlete than her sister Gina was, but she was quicker when it came to courting the girl that would put his faith back in love.
Bam V. Abellon | Sep 01 2019

It’s been a week since former DENR Secretary and ABSCBN Foundation head Regina Paz “Gina” L. Lopez was laid to rest but it seems a lot of people are only now becoming aware of who she was, with many getting inspired by how she lived. The lady was, indeed, a cut above the rest: a philanthropist, an earth warrior, a human rights activist and wellness advocate. Her siblings say that even when they were younger, they already knew she was the different one. 

Gina Lopez (stand-in left) with her father Eugenio “Geny” Lopez, Jr. and mom Chita, and older brother Gabby (top right) with the guitar. Seated from left: Marisa with her dog Ashley, Ernie, Berta, and Raffy sitting with the guitar. Photograph from Lopez Museum Library

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In one of the early days of the wake, held at the ASAP studio in ABSCBN, her brother Ernie Lopez, president of the media company’s Creative Programs Inc., was asked to speak about Gina, who passed away at 65 last August 19 due to multiple organ failure. Ernie delivered his eulogy in front of family and friends who alternately shed tears and laughed as Ernie recalled fond memories of his sister. It was supposed to have been his older brother Gabby’s toka to speak but the ABSCBN chairman emeritus was sick.

“It’s because of love that she put up Bantay Bata; she put up Bantay Kalikasan; she put up Bantay Usok, and the I Love Foundation...The story of Gina is the story of love,” said Ernie, preparing the audience for stories of love—all of which starred GIna. Of these stories, the last is closest to Ernie’s experience, which involves a gift he never saw coming. Or did he? 

 

He always ends up crying 

“Good evening. Ako si Ernie Lopez, kapatid ni Gina Lopez,” Ernie began. “That’s what I say whenever I talk in G Diaries [her TV program that promoted ecotourism]...I was supposed to speak on Friday, in Tagalog, because Gabby can’t speak Tagalog.” Ernie said he will just translate his eulogy into English as he goes along. 

“There are two people on this planet that make me cry whenever I talk about them: my dad and Gina. Even before Gina was even sick, I could not understand what about her — here it starts — what about her made me cry when I spoke of her in public,” Ernie said, fighting his tears. 

“The story of Gina is a story of love. From the very beginning to the very end of her story, it has love written all over it," Ernie says at his sister's eulogy. Photograph by Michael Bagtas, ABS-CBN News

“I thought about it, and I was trying to figure it out: Why is it whenever I talk about my dad, when I talk about Gina, I end up crying? And I think it’s because both my dad and Gina are really good souls. They’re good people. Please bear with me if I get emotional. But I don’t think there’s any way around talking about Gina, for me, without getting emotional," Ernie said. “The story of Gina is a story of love. From the very beginning to the very end of her story, it has love written all over it. The Good Book says that God is love. Let all that you do be done in love. And that without love, we are nothing.” 

He said Gina overflowed with love and loved without restrictions. “Todo-todo, walang preno,” he added. “She doesn’t know what brakes are. When she was a teenager, she was driving a Volkswagen bug, and she hit her head on the windshield in an accident—and the windshield cracked. As you can see, her head’s fine.” 

 

Going to see Gina again 

And then he began telling her stories of love. “The first one is her love story with our country, and with people in general,” he said. “She loves people so much, and she loved her country so much, she left our family. She joined Ananda Marga. They told her, you cannot restrict your love to your family alone. You must give your love to the entire world, to the family of God. So she left. Because their organization believes that you must cut off all your ties with your family. You must give yourself not just to your family, but to the whole family of the world.” 

The second story was about Gina finding another kind of love, which was the reason she left Ananda Marga. “She fell in love with Sona [Roy], her boss. She rose high enough in the organization so that she was able to give us a call. She got in touch with us. We didn’t know whether she was dead or alive for 20 years. And I remember my father saying— we were in San Francisco, we were going up Portola Street— he told me, ‘We are going to see Gina again. I’m going to see her again.’ And I asked him, ‘How do you know this?’ We didn’t know if she was dead or alive for so many years. ‘How do you know this, dad?’

“He said, ‘I just know.’

“I said, ‘How can you be so sure?’ He said, ‘Because JC told me.’ 

“I said, ‘What’s JC? JC Penney?’ 

“He said, “

"‘JC is Jesus Christ.’

“He had faith. He believed he would see Gina again. And God honored his faith. And one day she called up,” Ernie recalled. He recalled that in 1985 his mother and father visited Gina in Zimbabwe. And then again in 1987, in Kenya. “It was a really amazing experience to see her there. She fell in love with her boss, Sona. And they belonged to a missionary organization, where they both had to be celibate, and they fell in love, so they left the organization.”

 

The best ex-wife 

After Gina separated from Sona, she still made sure he was doing okay. “I’m the best ex-wife anyone will ever have,” Ernie remembered his sister saying. “She made sure Sona always had a job, always was taken care of. And she really loved him even though they already separated. And I saw this love demonstrated, especially in the hospital. Because Sona was at her side, 24/7, every day. Gina told Sona, ‘Don’t leave.’ So he didn’t leave.”

Ernie thanked Sharon, Sona’s current wife. “Sabi ko, ‘Sharon, salamat ha. Pinahiram mo ’yong asawa mo kay Gina.’ And Sharon said, ‘Mi casa, su casa. My husband is her husband.’ This is how much love Gina has. Sharon loves her. She loves Sharon.”

He went on to describe Gina’s last days. “Sharon would sing to Gina and cry. I can’t think of my ex-wife singing to me, you know, if I’m on my death bed. I don’t think that would happen,” Ernie said. “But this is how much love Gina generates. Her ex-husband is there, the wife of the ex-husband is there. They’re all there. And there’s just so much love going around.”

 

One more chance

Before he ended his eulogy, he told the last story of love. “I hope I can get through this one,” he said, afterwhich he spoke of one last gift Gina gave him before she died.

“I’ve been separated from my ex for eight years now. I never dated. I never had a girlfriend. My good friends know this, and they’re always trying to set me up.” His niece would say, “Tito Ernie, I wanna set you up with someone.” And Ernie would look at some photograph of a girl and say, “Wow, okay, a.” And then he would always say the same thing: “I’m not yet annulled; I can’t do that. I have to take care of my kids.” He offered one excuse after another. 

But something happened when he was visiting Gina at the hospital. “She had her MRI, and I went to the hospital to go visit her,” he recalled. “And on my way to the room, the MRI room, I saw someone I had met three times previously, this very beautiful woman. 

“I saw this beautiful woman who worked at the hospital. I saw her on three other occasions, but nothing happened. She accompanied me to Gina. And Gina said, ‘What’s your name?’ She said, ‘My name’s Michelle.’

“‘How old are you?’

“‘I’m 48 years old.”

“‘Are you married?”

“‘I’ve been annulled for the last 19 years.”

“‘I want you for my brother.’”

RIght then, all Ernie could say was “Wow,” surprised by the swiftness of it all. “She doesn’t waste any time talaga. She’s always in a hurry,” Ernie said of his sister. 

“So she started telling the doctors in the hospital, ‘This woman’s gonna marry my brother.’ And all the doctors there got offended and upset because they said, ‘Akala namin close kami sa ’yo Michelle, wala kang sinasabi na may fiancé ka na pala.’”

Through all the egging and teasing, Ernie never changed his answers: “I can’t do this right now. I’m still not yet annulled. I have my church annulment. I don’t have my civil annulment yet. And, you know, I can’t do this.”

But he knew Gina was not one to give up. “She doesn’t stop. And my family kinda joined in. Every member of my family who met Michelle, they really, really liked her,” said Ernie. “And then at one point, my brother Raffy told me, ‘Ernie, pag hindi mo ’to pinatulan, tanga ka.’ That sort of made me think.”

One Sunday, his family invited Michelle to the family lunch—with Ernie’s permission. Michelle arrived at the lunch, bearing flowers and chocolates, and found none of the people she expected to see. “She was mortified because when she arrived there, there was no one there from the hospital. She thought there’d be other doctors, other nurses, other people from the medical team,” Ernie recalled. “But it was just my brother, my sisters, our nephew, and our nieces. She was so embarrassed.” Ernie, to put the lady at ease, walked up to Michelle and said, “Awkward, no?”

He also decided on that day to get to know Michelle more. “And as I got to know her, I got really, really surprised. It’s like my whole family knew her so well. As I got to know her, it confirmed everything they told me about her. It confirmed for me what Gina saw in her.”

 

‘This is your gift to me’

Ernie, the athlete and health buff, would join a race in Vietnam right after, and while there he would learn that his sister Gina had been checked into the ICU. He was worried she will pass on while he’s away. “But the day I arrived—I arrived on a Monday—I went to the hospital with Michelle, and my mom was lying down on the bed, beside Gina. And I told Gina, ‘Gina, this is your gift to me: Michelle.’” 

Ernie kissed Michelle in front of his sister, and told her, “Thank you for this gift that you’ve given me.”

Gina then held both their hands, Ernie’s and Michelle’s, and she squeezed both. “I was so thankful for that,” recalled Ernie. “I’m a 55-year-old teenager now. I now know what it’s like to not sleep, to not eat. All those sappy love songs, I listen to them.” 

Clearly, Ernie became the very embodiment of a man in love, thanks to his sister. “This is Gina,” he said. “This is what she does. She spreads love.” 

 

With special thanks to Chit Guerrero