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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

 
Dear Mom,

I found the little graveyard that J told me about. Now I understand why she was so moved. The birds are singing so clearly and optimistically--if I close my eyes, I am in one of the little apple trees along the gravel road to Great Grandma Wolf's farm. She is in the earth now. As tangibly distant and historical as the people who have been resting in the earth for 400 years here in this courtyard. Not like you.

The grass and little dandylions and other wildflowers and weeds spill over everything. Somehow it has all overgrown just enough to be charming and vivacious, not eerie, not forgotten. Just peaceful and other-worldly. There are tall fir trees surrounding the mausoleum in the center of the courtyard, and all is enclosed by arches and this cool walkway inside the baroque buildings. I feel alone but full. Are you here with me?

I cry for you. I want to cry more than I do--the hurt is like a knot in my back that I try to work out. I am sad that there are not more tears. I am so sad that you feel so far away. You were the most important person in my life for 21 years, and I am forgetting you. I am so ashamed. I want to think of you all the time, every time something wonderful or bad happens. I want you to still be part of it all, and for you to be proud of me and happy for me, and sympathetic and loving of me. I am sure that you are, somehow, but I can't feel it very often anymore. Even when I am cooking and I think how much we both would have enjoyed being in the kitchen together, I try to feel you there more than you are.

As an alternative to feeling you, I tell myself that the best way to keep your spirit close to me is to be kind. Like you always were. I am ashamed of that too, that it is not always my first instinct. I didn't used to be so impatient and hard--is it a defense mechanism learned from living in big cities, or am I just my father's daughter? I will keep trying to be better. I will love you by loving other people.

And I will take J's suggestion to set aside a time every week to be alone and think of you. After 3 and a half years of making sure to cry enough, I have spent the past 6 months allowing myself avoid the tragedy of your death, switching to safer, more convenient thoughts. I am so sorry. And so foolish. This is why I have a knot of tears to work out.

Maybe you won't feel as far away when I fix this.

Love,
Your Daughter



Tuesday, March 16, 2004

 
(What I read at Mom’s memorial service)

Monday, June 24, 2002

“Dear Mom,

It’s going to be a while before I fully comprehend what it meant when you exhaled for the last time. I can acknowledge that then was the last time I will ever hold your hand-that you will no longer answer the phone when I call, nor lace up your shoes to walk with me-but still I am not able to understand how this can really be true, how the world will really go on functioning without you.

Somehow just agreeing that no one can explain these things isn’t enough: I choose to believe that all things happen for a reason. So I’ve decided that God took you because you had mastered the art of living. Perhaps because you had succeeded in all other aspects of life, had already begun behaving like an angel anyway, it was time for you to tackle the challenge of ovarian cancer, and then death itself.

I measure your success by the happiness that filled your life. You knew how to find, and how to share joy, as a wife, a mother, a friend, a human being. To watch you and Dad together was to know that soul mates do exist, and to understand that a perfect balance of love, communication, respect, passion, and support can be achieved. Because of your love for each other, I will never settle for less than your ideal in my own relationships.

I lament all the questions I will not be able to ask you as I raise my own children (someday), but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the greatest thing you taught me was how to be a mother. You drew pictures on my lunch sacks, you helped me shave my legs for the first time, you cheered at every soccer game. You started explaining things to me before I even learned to ask, “Why?”; you told me when my attitude needed adjustment; you always had time to listen, and you made it easy for me to think of you as one of my best friends.

You knew to take care of yourself so that you could take care of others and you taught me that the best way to cure a bad mood is to do something nice for someone else. You were constantly doing things for other people, seeing the best in them, and making them better without their even realizing it. Or perhaps they did realize-and that is why there is an enormous network of people eager to help us, because they loved you and they understand just what we lost.

Mom, this is the most difficult letter I have ever had to write. I am frustrated to tears at the futility of my attempt to, in a few paragraphs, explain how exceptional you were, how much love I feel for you, how grateful I am to be your daughter. I’m glad I walk like you, glad that, like you, I talk too loudly when I get excited. You are George Bailey on Christmas Eve. You are my angel. Though my heart will be slow to mend, I have only to think of how you would behave to know how to march forward with optimism, resilience, and courage. It will forever be my goal to live as you did--to have touched the world in so special a way. And I will be a better person every day as I try to be more like you.”



Thursday, July 18, 2002

 
Friday, September 8, 2000
It was nighttime in September, my sophomore year of college. I had been waiting all day to hear how Mom's exploratory abdominal surgery had gone. I was alone in my dorm room when Dad called. J. was supposed to be coming over soon. I held the phone and looked out the criss-cross panes of my four vertical windows at the lit top of the chapel above the tree line. Dad blah-blahed about how the doctor said if he was gone for several hours, that was a good thing because he would be resectioning her colon, but if he came back in an hour, it was bad. He had been back in 45 minutes. "It's ovarian cancer," Dad said. My lungs shriveled and I tried to think rationally. I wanted to ask objective questions . . . but my attempts to hold in convulsive sobs were vain. "Are you alone?" Dad asked. "J. is coming over soon," I sobbed. "God dammit!" Dad fumed at the fact that no one was with me. J. walked in almost immediately.

Cancer was the least favorable explanation for the stricture in Mom's colon. I didn't know then that Mom was sentenced to death that day. Even after I had had time to study the statistics ("had time to study" does not equal "studied"), to understand our options, even when chemos stopped working and we were left with only long shots, I still could not admit it out loud.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001 (Spain)
I remember last Thanksgiving when Mom, Mark and Dad came to see me and Madrid for a week. Dr. Donato said it would be okay if Mom made the trip, though it came just before her lung surgery. They had found a pinky-sized growth on her lung, and quarter-sized swollen lymph nodes in her chest. I'm thinking of us at VIPS, and Mom and I sitting across from each other in our red booth after we had eaten while Mark and Dad went to the bathroom. We held hands across the tabletop, and I tried not to think the thoughts I was thinking. I talked instead about what a great idea it would be for, once all of this was said and done, the two of us to travel northern Europe together. I pictured us overlooking immense, richly green hills from a train window. "Oh, I would love it so much if we're able to do that," Mom said. "It's good for me to have things like that to look forward to."

I don't think she ever realized how much of my faith and optimism was based on her own. How, when she said things like that, entertaining any doubt that she, in fact, might not survive this, I crumbled inside. I wasn't in denial of the facts--but that she knew exactly what she was up against and still fought as though she would win fueled my belief in the possibility of a miracle. And even though I could tell people that we needed a miracle--that's what the doctor said, and isn't that dramatic?--Mom’s optimism veiled from me the fact that her prognosis was actually so dyer that only a miracle could save her.

I used my paper napkin to wipe the wetness from under my eyes and squeezed Mom's hands. Even now as I relive the memory in my head, I am so consumed with the profundity of my own emotions that I can't imagine what Mom was feeling as she looked at me.

Tuesday, December 25-26, 2001
I think we were going to watch a movie or something. We had put all the crumpled wrapping paper balls into the black trash bag, still in the middle of the living room floor. Mom's headache hadn't gone away, but she had baked us a coffee cake anyway. Dad had slipped back to his bedroom, and had been there a little too long. I pushed through the ajar door and saw him lying on his stomach on his bed, wiping his eyes. I knelt on the carpet by his side of the bed. "I just wanted Mom to feel better for Christmas," he choked, breaking into more tears. I put my arms around him and cried in my heart. Mark came in and lay beside Dad, not having to be told what the matter was. "What's going on?," Mom asked rhetorically when she saw us. She felt such anguish for being the cause of this. As if she were not the real victim, not the bearer of the most oppressive pain. The four of us talked about fear and frustration, and hope and determination.

That night the pain in her head was so acute that it was all she could do to sprint to the bathroom and back to bed without crying out. Just before Mom's lung surgery a few weeks ago, they had messed up on her epidural. The blood patch they had done to fix it had evidently not stayed put, so Mom's spinal fluid was leaking, and hence her brain wasn't floating as it should have been. I try to imagine what it would feel like to have the insulative fluid drained from my skull, leaving my squishy, ultra-sensitive brain resting on some sharply-protruding place on the surface of the bone. It's just a vision, unattached to any innate flinching reaction—like I have when imagining someone filing my eyeball with sandpaper. And yet, I got the feeling that that was the most excruciating pain my mother had ever felt. Until then, she had been unfalteringly optimistic and determined. She didn't entertain fears about the future. I was shaken when I watched her clutch Dad's hand in the hospital bed, afraid to sit up, terrified of another inaccurate needle puncture in her spine. Though this time the blood patch worked, she told me later that she had been so fearful that the pain would never go away.


Friday, January 4, 2002
The pulmonary specialist drained a quart and a half of brown, malignant fluid from Mom's lung. I saw it in the glass jars they wheeled out into the hall. For about fifteen minutes after the procedure, Mom coughed ceaselessly, and sputtered and made weak, helpless moans. The chest x-ray had shown her right lung (as opposed to left, like Dr. McMuffin told us downstairs as she astutely looked at the image upside-down) at only one-third capacity. No wonder she had spent the day gasping for breath. No wonder they had called in the pulmonary specialist at 2:00AM.

I don't want to cry. I'm too tired to cry. It's 3:40AM and hopefully Mom is sleeping at least a little soundly at Denton Regional. I'm so angry. This is so ridiculous. Our life consists of chest x-rays and spirometers. People should feel sorry for us. I have to remind myself that we are not the first family to deal with cancer. I wish we were. Then we would merit more sympathy (not that we are really lacking).

Mom is scared. This is some serious shit—I can't even imagine what she's feeling as she stares mortality in the face. I'm mad that I can't take it away from her. I can't say anything that makes this easier, or makes her understand how much I love her and how much it hurts me to see her this way, and how scared I am too. She was sitting at the kitchen table with her imagination this afternoon, so I invited her to come sit in my room while I packed. I thought it would be nice to spend time with her, cheer her up, take her mind off this. I couldn't think of a damn thing to say. Quite honestly, nothing seems worth mentioning when we are all thinking about stage four cancer and fighting against death.

Sunday, May 5, 2002
I sat intently mashing the frozen blueberries into my vanilla frozen yogurt at Baskin Robins. I shared the hard, plastic-covered booth with D. and E. They were ready to listen. I told them about the fear that had materialized in my head during the past week. All this time I had been looking forward to a relaxing summer. I would live down in Houston with Mom, taking her to the hospital for her routine every morning, and then spending quality time with her in the afternoons. While she slowly recovered, I would have time to read, lay by the pool, do some writing. But when I called Mom a couple days ago to proclaim that my papers were finished and I was an official senior in college, she congratulated me, and shared her own bit of news: her CA-125 had gone up. She tried to make it sound like it wasn't that big a deal. Technically, in the scheme of things, it wasn't. Of all the bad news we've been dealing with, this was merely a headline on page three. But it was further evidence that we were losing our battle. And I knew that salvage therapy was a long shot--that the stem cell transplant itself was a long shot--but I didn't really know. That's how it's been all along: I hear something, understand it, explain it to others. But I don't really know it until I am there, watching Mom struggle with it. Watching her tremble, trying not to move because the pain in her head was so paralyzing. Walking around MD Anderson, that world of medicine and knowledge, and very sick bald people.

It wasn't until I started packing to go home that I accepted the fact that I was not going to have a relaxing summer, not going to watch Mom steadily recover. No, I was going to watch my mother be sick. Very sick. And the likelihood of her being alive at the end of my three months with her was terrifyingly small. I cried to D. and E., thinking aloud about the fact that a little part of me knew that Mom was not going to survive the summer, but that I had not yet adjusted my visions of my future to exclude her. My college graduation. My wedding. Mom was still in all the pictures, and though I didn't realize it then, I was already beginning to mourn her future absence. And it was difficult for me to verbalize those thoughts because I was legitimately afraid that my secret disbelief that she would survive could somehow stir the cosmic forces surrounding her. I believed that the prayers of many people were helping Mom; why would my personal little breach of faith not also be a factor that God considered?

Friday, June 1, 2002
Mark and I shifted our weight in the elevator, riding up to another psuedo-day in our alternate existence as hospital visitors. "Do you think Mom is going to make it through the summer?" he asked. "No." "Me neither."

They're wheeling her back from her x-ray now. She's adorable, like a little colorful Eskimo, all bundled up. Pink hospital blanket around her shoulders (looking like a cheap towel). Her greenish-turquoise fleece robe underneath, with the hood up over her royal blue baseball cap. The pale yellow plastic gloves and duck-bill mask match her yellow-tipped ankle socks. It's always cold in the hospital.

The tears do not catch in her eyelashes. She doesn't have any.

Thursday, June 6, 2002
I'm numb right now. Mom is currently having fluid extracted from her abdomen--it keeps re-accumulating and making her uncomfortable and too full to eat anything. They gave her the chemo yesterday and so far it hasn't done anything, good or bad. Tomorrow she'll get the rest of the stem cells and then we will watch her for a few days. The waiting is the numbing part. I sit and look at her in the hospital room. She looks back and can't see my encouraging smile underneath my surgeon's mask (we have to wear them in there). There's nothing to say. She has cried a bit every morning, frustrated that she hasn't gotten the breaks she deserves, thinking about how Mark and I will have to tell our friends that our mom died this summer. She's uncomfortable and can hardly walk without panting. We can't talk about things we want to do after this, because the large probability that she won't be around when this is all over is too scary. We can't ask her how she's feeling because it's never very good, and even "I love you" gets redundant . . . fabulous. We just got the report back from her chest CT-scan yesterday. She has blood clotting in her lungs, what looks like a bit of pneumonia, and probably cancer on them too. It's crazy how I can sit for hours with her in the same room and I'm able to forget that she probably won't be alive this time next week. The numbness is a defense mechanism, I'm sure, so that I don't cry every time I see her grimace in pain, every time I see the hopelessness and misery in her face. Very soon, unless we get a miracle in a couple days, it will all be real, and my ability to be numb to it will be replaced by the stifling reality that I will never ever see or touch my mother again. This is going to be irrevocable and the most painful loss I have ever known. I just about typed, "will probably ever know," but then I erased it, knowing that years and years from now it may not be. I'm heartbroken. I don't understand God. I know I'm not supposed to understand an omniscient being . . . maybe I just wish I were better at the blind faith thing.

Monday, June 10, 2002
My feelings of impotence multiply the magnitude of my claustrophobia. I want to take a bowling-ball-sized glass container filled with colored liquid and slam it as hard as I can at a clean, white wall. Every moment that passes, my respect for my father grows. He has been living like this for months. Everything is small. The apartment we're living in, the hospital room, the family lounge, my ability to do anything to help my mother. We were just up there with her and the doctors just left, and Dad told Mom that it's not a good idea to try and take her home yet. And so her bubble burst-again-and her face drooped lower than it has in the past week. She hates this. And she needs to start eating or she'll starve herself to death. Even though there's nothing I can say or do to make this easier for her, or to take away the perpetual discomfort, I just want to sit in the room with her and let this sink in. We hadn't had any time to just be the four of us before the doctors came in anyway--but N. sticks her head in the door, signifying that other family members are here, so now we have to leave so that they can come in. I'm so angry--so filled with negative energy--because now is not the time that we should have to take turns and share. But it's no one's fault and everyone has come a long way to see Mom . . . I have to go for a walk because I don't want to see these people right now--because they are choking me and it's not their fault, and if I don't walk away I'll take it out on them. I have no one to blame, no scapegoat for my rage. I can't do anything. I want to scream. And each loving family member that enters the room only comes with the best of intentions. They don't know that they are stealing my oxygen.

(retrospective)
Before Mom died, but after the doctors had stopped treatment and we knew death was eminent, I waited for the perfect, not-out-of-the-blue time to ask Mom for a favor. Not without crying a little, I said to her, "Mom, if this doesn't work out, and you take off for Heaven, if God will let you, I really want you to send me a sign once in a while, to let me know you're still around." She sniffed and petted my hair, looking out the window instead of answering. I believe in signs like that, and in angels and mystical forces guiding the universe, and atoms colliding in pre-destined ways such that things happen according to God's plan—even, and especially death. And I wonder if I choose to think this way because these assumptions are the buoys keeping me from sinking into meaninglessness. Am I hypocritical to believe that all things happen for a reason, when I believe it so worthwhile to question one's religion? Is this just a crutch that I am afraid to doubt, because upon further examination it might crumble and I will learn that we aren't all here for a reason—that my mom's death was entirely random? Actually, I don't care. The beauty of these questions is that they don't have answers (to be found here on Earth) (I believe), and while I might never convince others that I am right, so long as I am convinced myself I can have peace of mind.

(retrospective, June 20, 2002--the day Mom died)
I keep re-envisioning Mom lifting her wrist (not her hand--it hung there, unextended) toward her cheek to scratch. Morphine makes you itch, evidently. She would generally forget why she had raised her arm before her fingernails reached their destination, and so her hand would hang in the air for a moment and then just fall back onto the swollen mound that was her belly. Occasionally she would make it, but her limp fingers would only barely graze her skin's surface. I would then gently scratch for her the place on her face that I guessed her to be aiming. Early in the day she would smile and laugh late, with a faint baby laugh. By late afternoon she didn't know I was there.


Thursday, June 20-21, 2002
The most difficult part of all of this has been to accept that Mom has actually ceased to exist on this planet. I hardly believe it; I have to picture her lying in that hospital bed in room 1141, greyish-yellowish, looking all too much like the way you hear that dead people look, no longer breathing. Her eyes didn't really want to stay shut and the nurse had Dad hold a towel under her chin to keep her jaw closed. I didn't want to look at her. Mark sat and cried as he held her hand. I didn't want to touch her. I needed immediately to separate the sunken body in the bed from the spirit of my mother. I smiled at the thought of finally knowing where she was. I pictured her looking down on us, sad that we were hurting, but strong and atmospheric, and at peace. I had just been telling Aunt C. downstairs that I hated not knowing where she was. Was her spirit sleeping inside her morpined mind, or was she already gone? C. felt sure that Mom was already in Heaven, but it wasn't until I walked into the room, and Dad said, "She's gone," and I beheld how dead she looked that I could smile at her great fortune to be finished with ovarian cancer and pain and fear. My smile was short-lived, though, because each time I looked at her--not even her; "it," perhaps? "Her body"--her death seemed a more tangible end than a relief-filled passing. I looked out the window as the doctor came in to pronounce her dead, and I didn't cry when the chaplain came in and said a prayer as we all held hands in a half-oval around the bed. Dad said to me urgingly, "This will be the last time you ever see Mom," as though Mom were a loaf of bread this were the last time I would ever have a chance to eat. He didn't understand that I had no appetite--I was already full. That wasn't Mom to me. That was a scary, dead body that she used to inhabit. As we left, and in spite of myself, I kissed her on the forehead (and now it seems appropriate to refer to the body as "her"). Its cool lifelessness was the last impetus I needed to have me walking swiftly out the door, out of MD Anderson forever--I can only hope.

Friday, June 21, 2002
I awoke with puffy eyes and lead in my chest. All I wanted to do was to sit quietly and wear black, but six female family members were bustling around the too-small apartment, packing and cleaning. One of my more helpful aunts had already thrown away my cereal and the milk, which was about the only thing I had been looking forward to after conceding that I must get out of bed. I had toast. That many hands, though stifling, made short work of emptying the apartment, so we got the hell out of Dodge around 2:00pm. Sitting in the passenger seat, shortly after Dad made a rueful comment about how he was used to Mom sitting in the front seat with him, I thought about how grateful I was that we hadn't tried to line up hospice care in Denton. Our ability to drive away from it all was invaluable to me. On our way home, we stopped at a gas station. I was buying a Diet Coke and the woman behind the counter asked smilingly--as I'm sure she does of all individuals who come within that particular proximity to her counter--how was I doing today? "Fine," I responded reflexively, but as the word came out of my mouth, my brain frowned and I thought to myself, "I'm not fine at all. I have just incurred the most profound loss I can imagine knowing. My mother DIED less than ten hours ago, and I'm standing in a random gas station and this woman has absolutely no idea. And I can't tell her. Why would she care? How is the world functioning so unbearably normally right now?"

Saturday, June 22, 2002
Dad and I were walking along Forrestridge when an old blue pick-up truck that had sped past us slowed and began to reverse back toward us. Out of the rolled down window poked the stout elbow and face of E., an acquaintance since elementary school but whom I haven't seen in three years. "Did'ya read the papers today?" he asked in hick-talk. "Guess who got busted?" I humored him with fabricated, smiling interest, "Who?" While he eagerly revealed the news that our old high school quarterback had been arrested for burglary, I thought to myself, "Have you read the papers today, E.? My Mom's obituary is in there." And I couldn't help but hope that his mom would say to him when he got home, "Did you hear about Kathy Ewing?", and that he would feel stupid for having been so insensitive. I hate that he wasn't being insensitive at all-that he had no reason not to believe that the most important bit of news I might have heard that day was that our quarterback was in jail.


June 29, 2002
I feel weird when someone catches me in a really good mood. It's not that this hasn't been hard on me, it's just that I'm capable of being relatively happy most of the time despite it all. That's what Mom wants for me. That's what I want for me. I HATE that this happened. But I don't hate life. People seem surprised to catch me upbeat, and I hate that they might be thinking that I've not been dealing with this, or that I don't love Mom as profoundly as I do, or that I don't lament the loss of our relationship every day. They don't realize that our mourning process began months ago. That those last few weeks in the hospital were worse than what I am feeling now. That I've already cried to the point of hyperventilation and I don't need to continue doing so every four hours. This will never go away. Hopefully it will just slowly begin to hurt less.


July 11, 2002
Somehow I truly believed that the conversation would continue. Yes, Mom would die, but she and I would continue to share experiences—rather, she would continue to share my experiences. For, I realize that I had no expectation of learning about where she had gone nor what kind of (for lack of a better word) existence she had transcended to, and, more importantly, I know better than ever that she did far more of the listening in our relationship than I did. I thought I would feel her smiling at me, feel that when I spoke to her she would be listening. I am so far mistaken.

I don't even know what "to her" means. I thought I would get a feel for where I should look when I spoke to her (up, out, all around, close my eyes?). Her spirit would take on some kind of shape—she would be the sky, or the space just to my left, or she would talk to me in my dreams. I would never see her again, but she would not be so actually gone. I am very much disappointed to find, however, that she is very much gone. Everything I see, do and feel is missing something, and I am afraid that my life will never feel complete again.


July 25, 2002
Mom was always finding money. Maybe she was an extra lucky person, or what is more likely, she went through life with her eyes open. It wasn t always pennies either sometimes it was $20 bills. And even when it was just a penny, no matter what she was doing or carrying, or how big her hurry was (or what sort of muck the penny was resting in), she would bend over to pick it up. I inherited this habit, and I now scoff at people who say, Ohh, tails up is bad luck. I say anytime you find money laying around it s good luck.

Once cancer entered our lives, we started to actually need the luck. Even Dad was picking up pennies and dimes, and during the intervals that we were waiting for important test results, I found a lucky penny on my walk, was as important a prediction device as the statistical data.

We Ewings have picked up a lot of pennies in the past couple years (not to mention the previous forty-six years my mother scoured the streets)(of course, she wasn t technically a Ewing until 78); though, when we were counting on them, they were of no avail. I found a penny a few days after Mom died and sighed at the thought of all the fruitless copper luck we had put into our pockets for so many months.

Tonight Dad and I were on a walk around the neighborhood. On the head end of our route, several blocks from our house, Dad stooped to pick up a penny I hadn t noticed. We kept walking, chatting about nothing noteworthy. The wind picked up a little, providing some relief from the stale heat of the day. Literally-black clouds were blowing toward us as we turned to head back home. (I say literally because all too often authors use black clouds to spoon-feed their readers with dramatic irony before some unhappy scene. How often are clouds really black?) (This scene isn t unhappy. The weather was merely interesting it was not at all related to what happened.)

To avoid the obviously-approaching five to seven minutes of downpour (North Texas weather), we called it quits early and skipped the last circle before ours. There was a penny. Before I had picked it up I saw another, a foot from the curb. And more! Dad was seeing still others! Scanning the pavement, I saw dirty, copper, run-over pennies uncamouflage themselves, spread over several yards of street. We crouched and picked them up, one by one, as fast as we could as though they might disappear if we didn t grab them fast enough. Can you believe this? I said. Several more. It s Mom, I was sure and smiling. Dad chimed, She's telling us not to sweat the small stuff she s got us taken care of. We laughed.

Dad added his cents to my fist of luck and I carried them the rest of the way home. We laughed again, and for the first time since Mom died, I felt like she had given me the kind of sign I had been hoping so desperately for. She hasn t ended. She s not so thoroughly gone. We decided we will drop the pennies into the lake along with Mom s ashes on Saturday. There are fifty-one of them.








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