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Extended Writings

Sri Lankan Summers

June 2023, unpublished

Vacations to Sri Lanka were like taking a bath in an exotic soup for two months each year. As we flew out of the tiny Kumasi airport in Ghana and headed for Rome or Italy or Lebanon en route to my grandmother’s home in Sri Lanka, I could barely contain my excitement for what lay
ahead. Most of my dad’s relatives had emigrated to California, but Mom’s family lived on the northern tip of the island, near Jaffna. We spent the entire summer in a small hamlet that made up for its diminutive size with a gargantuan name: Vaddukoddai.

The six of us stayed at my maternal grandmother’s home, but my favorite hangout was my Uncle Selvam’s large farm, set on several acres of golden red soil. The long L-shaped sandy drive to the farmhouse led past twenty varieties of roses. And each evening I would watch mycousin or the farmhand as they used a long broom to sweep the golden sand in front of the verandah into intricate interlacing patterns.

My sister Viji and I stayed with my cousins on the farm and played with all the animals Uncle Selvam kept such as cows, goats, and best of all, the purebred German Shepherds. My grandmother Ammamah kept two goats and I learned to milk those yellow-eyed, wise goats. I caressed the wattles on their necks and collected creamy goat milk in a bucket. At my uncle’s farm, Sheila, Mala, and Leila were the dairy cows. I loved to stroke their huge necks as I visited them in turn. On one occasion I became airborne, riding Mala’s horn, when I turned away to pick out extra food. Thankfully, I fell off with nothing but injured pride.

The baby chicks were kept in a covered wooden henhouse fitted with an electric light bulb to keep them warm at night. They had incredibly soft yellow down, and it was fun to watch them grow. My favorite chore was collecting eggs in a basket for the household in the morning. It helped counteract the guilt I felt from sleeping in until 8:30 every morning while my two older cousins got up at 4:30 to perform farm chores.

Sri Lankan meals were truly delicious. Although my mom prepared many different curries in Ghana, in Sri Lanka we had access to rich, fresh ingredients. The fishmonger cycled down the lane weekly with a large cane basket full of writhing shrimp and crabs. The fishy smell was nauseating, but when cooked into curry, it was a culinary feast. On the flip side, I struggled with indigestion almost daily. The spicy curries made my eyes tear and throat burn. Sometimes, even my ears buzzed after all the pepper, but the aroma and taste compensated for my discomfort. The jackfruit, papaya, mangoes, rich cakes, jaggery-flavored sweets, and semolina desserts were a great way to fan the blazing flames of the hot spiced food.

There were dishes of fresh crab; squid; a multitude of different mutton, fish, and vegetable dishes; and the most delicious steamed rice-flour concoctions. Coconut milk and freshly grated coconut abounded in just about every dish. On hot days, the farmhand offered us refreshing tall glasses of young coconut water, with shaved coconut slices floating around in it.

My uncle kept his German Shepherds in large crates during the day. He explained that they were guard dogs so could not roam around. They were out in the evenings, but it saddened me to see them in their crates. I contented myself by lying on the concrete next to them for hours, book in hand. My uncle glared at me but didn’t say a word. I squeezed my fingers through the gaps in
the crate to bury my fingertips in their soft fur.

My cousin Chuddu, three years older, had a superb record collection, and he played anything I wanted to hear. I’d lie on the living room couch while Neil Diamond hoarsely rendered “Cracklin’ Rosie” or Terry Jacks belted out “Seasons in the Sun,” while I feverishly tried to write down the lyrics. Chuddu humored me by repeatedly repositioning the needle on the record each time. I vividly remember the magic of those moments, with the heavy scent of roses wafting in on the breeze, stripping away differences with our shared love of music.

There was a deep well on the farm property and every afternoon the farmhand started the diesel motor in the well house. An icy waterfall of pressurized water was pumped out from the well into an outdoor, six-foot-square, concrete holding tank. Many times I threw on a bathing suit and braved the cold to take a bath outside in the waterfall as the freezing jet of water battered my back and made me gasp.

The tank drained into an elaborate network of sandy channels, a foot wide and ankle deep, which was used to water the farm crops. Barefoot, I splashed along the golden sandy channels, following the farmhand with his huge shovel. I watched with great interest as he shoveled open a passage to each crop bed until it flooded with water, and then he sealed it off again. Sometimes Viji, my cousin Chuddu, and I sailed paper boats down the irrigation system and raced along to see which boat made it the farthest. Sinking my toes into the soft sand with cool water swirling around my feet was a taste of heaven.


One traumatic incident occurred when my uncle’s puppy, who’d spent one night chained outside his crate was bitten by a stray. His wounds healed, but a few weeks later he developed rabies. My uncle got out his shotgun and had to shoot him, then cleared all the saliva from the crate and surroundings. Since we had all played with the puppy, eleven family members, myself included, required a painful course of rabies injections. These were injected into our stomachs daily for sixteen days.

The timing of the rabies shots couldn’t have been worse. We had scheduled a sightseeing trip around the island in a van. Rather than cancel the trip, each morning we faced a stop for a painful injection. My belly became hard, hot, and swollen after the first couple of days. I had to draw a circle on my belly to show the nurse where it was soft enough for the injection. We could not wear pants because our bellies were so swollen, and used hot water bottles for the pain from the hardened injection sites. Despite the pain, the stark beauty of the hill country in the middle of the island, complete with verdant green tea plantations made the soreness bearable.

The tea plantations had a lovely cool climate, a welcome respite from the scorching heat in he rest of the island. Tea pickers dressed in stunning saris from the deepest crimson to emerald green picked the leaves with baskets slung over their shoulders. We were shown how the finest teas were made from only the two leaves at the tip plus the bud, and how tea leaves were processed. Picturesque waterfalls abounded on this trip, and fearless monkeys came right up to us to beg for peanuts, making for plenty of wonderful memories.

We watched part of the ancient Buddhist Perahera procession in Kandy. After Buddha died around 400 BC, one of his disciples was said to have captured one of his teeth from his cremation pile. This “tooth relic” was supposedly smuggled to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century AD. Every summer, with a lot of fanfare, hundreds of elephants, drummers, dancers, musicians, singers, whip crackers, and flag bearers made the religious trek to the Mahaweli River, covering many miles over ten days.

The procession was stunning. Each elephant was decorated with a majestic hand-made quilt with appliquéd flowers, jewelry, and other decorations. The quilt covered even the ears and trunk of the elephant, and many of the quilts were strung with lights. The most magnificently dressed elephant carried a decorated platform that housed the tooth relic.

At first, I was entranced by the spectacle, but then I became overpowered by the strong smell of kerosene. I coughed in the smoke from the flaming braziers held by the dancers. When I saw the sad eyes of the elephants up close, I wanted to cry. I knew they must be so uncomfortable in their heavy clothing in the heat, with the cacophony of beating drums and prancing dancers all around them. I wished I could put them back in their jungle with their family, not primped up for our viewing pleasure.

My grandparents, uncles, and aunts spoke both English and Tamil, so it was easy to converse. I picked up a smattering of Tamil words, but Chuddu sternly warned me never to speak in Tamil in public on the buses.

“You speak Tamil so badly they’ll think you’re Sinhalese!” he warned, “We’ll all be in danger then, because the Tamils hate the Sinhalese.” Jaffna was a Tamil stronghold. Ethnic tensions between the two groups had always simmered around the island. Once we were on a train headed to Jaffna from Colombo. I waved and smiled at a child out in a field as the train drove by, but he threw a sharp rock at me that hit my neck. Puzzled, I asked my uncle to explain.

“The Sinhalese hate us so much that they throw stones at passengers on trains headed back to Jaffna, because they know they are full of Tamils,” he told me. Years later, I remembered our conversation when a man hurled a heavy rock at my uncle, who was a passenger on a motorbike.
The driver ducked, but my uncle did not see the rock in time. He required lifesaving surgery. The big rock took out his left eye and fractured his jaw.
Only later in my life did I realize how those long, hot summers helped to ground me in traditional Sri Lankan values. If a visitor should stop by, even for a few minutes, it was the norm to offer tea and biscuits and chat with them for as long as they wanted to stay. My mother switched from wearing pants in Ghana to saris to avoid tongues wagging. Thankfully, children could dress in both shorts and pants, but skirts and dresses were preferred and absolutely required in church.

Each night, Ammamah gathered us into the huge open courtyard in the house. She told us stories of long-gone days and her own childhood. She spoke excellent English and had a very proud and independent streak that the grown-ups called “stubborn.” One Sunday, the cathedral bells pealed out to herald the start of church service. I was too lazy to go before the second bell.The service would be in Tamil anyway, and I could only make out a few words, so I opted to stay behind with Ammamah.

I held hands with her and watched my parents heading up the long sandy lane with hordes of churchgoers, all dressed in their Sunday best. A veritable sea of patterned umbrellas was hoisted to ward off the intense sunlight. The women, decked in brightly colored saris, were like huge butterflies inching down the road.

“Why aren’t you going, Ammamah?” I asked curiously.

“Just look at all those people,” she shook her head, “They call themselves Christians, and go out like sheep on Sunday. I know what those so-called Christians do. See that man!” She pointed out a bald man in a black suit. “He shouts at his wife all day, all night, then thinks he can go to church for an hour to wash all his sins away. I don’t want to be with those people. Hypocrites! God-fearing people do good to others. That’s what I believe.” I had to laugh at the indignation on her deeply wrinkled face. My respect for my grandmother grew intensely after I absorbed her wise words.

One day, I strolled around the neighborhood, headed for the candy store. The boundary walls between properties were fashioned out of palm leaves with the fronds woven together. I heard singing and peered over the fence. About a dozen girls my age had formed a circle in the front yard of one of the homes. They were learning a dance move and singing and giggling, all dressed primly in bright-colored, full-length skirts, with traditional button-up blouses.

As my gaze lowered to my short, faded jean skirt and tight red T-shirt, I was crippled by a wave of sadness. We might be the same age, but I was far removed from these joyous girls prancing around. Something elemental within me wished I could shed my mantle of experience to join wholeheartedly in their frolic, but I was suddenly held captive by the irrevocable chasm that separated my world from theirs.

Along with my international friends in Ghana, I held a sophisticated, westernized world view, far removed from the innocence of these girls. Had I never left Sri Lanka I’d be right there with them. But I didn’t belong. I was a tourist. Something about the scene and my confused thoughts showed that I had changed fundamentally. Our worlds were eons apart. A braid from one of the girls launched into the air, smacking another girl in the face. Everyone giggled. I fingered the ends of my shoulder-length bobbed curls. Even my hair screamed out that I did not belong with these girls.


At that moment I was an outsider in every definition of the word. I wasn’t Ghanian, I wasn’t Sri Lankan. I was a Heinz 57 traveler, a voyeur in an exotic destination, but also a lost girl unable to embrace a sense of belonging. I wiped a couple of stray tears off my cheek as I headed down the road. Terry Jacks’ lyrics played in my head, “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasonsin the sun...” I’d felt like a stranger in my own country for a few seconds, but I’d enjoyed golden, joyous episodes “in the sun” with my blood relatives. They lived half a world away from me, yet as a privileged child I could jump on a plane to be with them each summer.

I lifted my eyes in a salute to the universe for allowing me this moment of reflection and communion with my culture.


My Last Reserve

Lyrics by Lally Pia

I tried my best, then got bad news.
I’d struggled hard; I was confused
The final straw had just been dealt
The pain inside had no outlet

I cried all night, I felt unfit
With dreams all dashed, ready to quit
Within my heart a darkened hole
Another loss just took its toll


My last reserve, the spark still there
I took a breath of hope and air
Breathed in and out, so I’d ignite
That ember to a burning light

Smoldering ashes finally lit
My last reserve refused to quit
Burnt midnight oil and slaved again
Gave it my all, blew off the pain

Then stumbled more, try after try
Had I just set my goal too high?
I lost my courage, lost my nerve
And then I found my last reserve

FINAL CHORUS (repeated)
My last reserve refused to quit
Picked broken pieces, bit by bit
It roared inside, breathed through my skin
My being glowed, from deep within

My last reserve was fully lit
My last reserve refused to quit
My last reserve, so deep inside
My last reserve helped me survive

My Last Reserve Nicole Olichney
00:00 / 03:47
Standing on the Summit

An Open Letter to Brock Purdy

Published July 17, 2023 in Doximity

A sign by my fireplace reads “We Interrupt this Marriage for Football Season.”

Most people think it’s for my husband, but it’s for me, the wife. I’ve been a diehard 49ers fan since the 80s, and like many, I thought this year was our chance for the Super Bowl.


And then there was that fateful day, January 29, 2023, when you, Brock Purdy of the 49ers, took that hit. I couldn’t believe it. Simply couldn’t believe it. My world came crashing down. Everything clouded over, because like millions of other fans, I was devastated—and so scared for you. Nothing seemed real.


But minutes later, when the edge of the television screen got blurry, life got weirder still.

A quick call to my daughter, a child neurology resident in Rochester, New York, confirmed my worst fears. I was having a stroke.


I found out later that my left internal carotid artery had jammed up. In an instant, the blood supply to the left side of my head was gone.


Like someone thumbing through a flipchart, only fleeting memories remain. In the ER, everything was cloudy and jumbled. My words tripped over each other. I’ll never forget my absolute terror when I stared stupidly at the clerk and blanked on my birthdate. There was the stinging jab of a clot-buster. Everywhere they took me, the comforting, sanitizing aroma of alcohol was in the air.


I said yes to everything I was asked. Like a nodding taxi doll, every option sounded absolutely perfect. If someone had suggested head removal, I’d likely have acquiesced. The shock and disbelief on my husband Tim’s face played back as I was loaded into an ambulance to Sutter in Sacramento.


I’ll never forget the concern and kind words of the young man who sat with me in the ambulance as the siren blared. He did his best to keep me engaged and awake. On that terrifying ride, he would never know just how much I appreciated this intense connection with another human, while everything I knew to be true or real was gradually slipping away—vanishing from my consciousness.


Other vivid images remain—the solemn faces of the team of blue-coated doctors who faced me at the hospital. Their voices were hushed, but they did their best to reassure me. A smiling nurse shaved my thigh and I learned that a tube was going to be placed into my femoral vein. The speech therapist asked me to repeat, “Babababa... kakakaka”. She smiled back at me, so I knew I must be doing it right.


A short time later, I was profoundly relieved to hear that I didn’t need my skull cracked open and emergency brain surgery to move my middle meningeal artery around. Hallelujah to that!


Miraculously, I learned that my collateral vessels jumped into action to nourish the poor starved brain cells on the left side of my brain. This intrepid collection of fetal blood vessels was recruited to play their part in my recovery. Without hesitation they blazed through triumphantly, in a symphony of support.


There were casualties. I’m pretty sure several million brain cells keeled over and called it quits.

But thank goodness we’re endowed with a few billion spares!


Two weeks after the stroke I didn’t know what a cup was. I had to ask where jam would be stored, finally deducing that it might be in the refrigerator because it was made of fruit. I’m a competitive scrabble player, but could no longer fathom how to place letters against other letters. Simple computations were difficult. Digits morphed into other numbers. My physician friend drew a large number “9” with the number “5” beside it, but I could not distinguish the numerals. Of course this made patient scheduling tricky.


The notes of my Mozart sonata morphed into hieroglyphics. I now played piano like a kindergartener with tears rolling down my face. That was hard. I had lost a part of myself, Brock. A skill I owned that no one had but me.


My dense right visual field deficit made it easy to hit my head. Crowds of people overwhelmed me. I tolerated short meetings, one person at a time. Determined to work as soon as possible (my husband calls me stubborn) I saw patients on ZOOM just two weeks later. Visits were spread out with ten-minute breaks in which I lay flat on my bed, listening to meditation tapes.


As if that wasn’t enough, fate threw me a curve ball in the form of a new software system to navigate at the start of February. My neurologist told me last week that my miraculous recovery was due not only to rescue blood vessels, but also because I am constantly seeking solutions to problems, so I have internal deductive “work arounds”. I received speech therapy and cognitive testing and was given the green light to drive again. I’m almost back to 100 percent. I can beat my daughter at scrabble, but scrolling through the electronic chart still gives me a blinding headache. Copying numbers takes intense effort.


Brock, you tore your ulnar collateral ligament, and shortly after that, my left internal carotid artery clogged up. But this world we live in is a caring world inhabited by beautiful, skilled, selfless people with hearts full of love. They are our collaterals. Like my hardworking vessels, our collaterals stepped forward without hesitation in our time of greatest need. Isn’t it wonderful that we both benefitted from the wonderful collaboration of hundreds of skilled humans, all waiting in the wings to help out?


Everyone from my ambulance driver to the neurosurgeons to the hospital dietician, who made sure I had a low-sugar menu, to the cheery man who swept around my bed daily. Those are my heroes. They jumped in without hesitation to put me back together and support me. I can play piano again, Brock, thanks to my collaterals.


You know what, Brock? I think we’re going to make it.

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