Continued from previous blog (July - December 2012)
"They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tell us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest...the dead do not suffer."
~ Robert Green Ingersoll in 1882, at the graveside of a friend's child.
Ingersoll has been called "The Great Agnostic."
On Monday, I was at the old house Doug and I lived in, visiting with my friends who are renting it. That night I had a dream. (I hesitate to write about my dreams, since they are typically only interesting to the person who had them :-). However, dreams of the dead are a common feature of dealing with loss.)
I was in some crowded place with PS. We were listening to lively music on earphones and dancing around, having fun. I heard a familiar sounding "woohoo" cheer behind me (behind=past?). I turned around, and was surprised and delighted to see Doug. He looked young, fit and tan, as if he had been outdoors a lot.
I ripped off my headset and ran to him. We wrapped our arms around each other. I just said "Oh Doug" in his ear. He did not speak, but I felt completely enveloped in love and communion as we held each other as tightly as we possibly could. Yet I also felt a deeper sadness. Although in the dream I did not "know" that he was dead, I did somehow realize that he was part of my past, and that ached. I wanted him back. At the same time, I knew PS was in my life now and felt torn. The embrace lasted only moment and then I woke up.
The dream felt like a visit. I had three of these dreams in the first year after Doug died (read more about dreams of the dead.) When I started dating PS, the visit dreams stopped. I occasionally have other dreams where Doug was present, but they do not seem real.
My cousin, who lost her husband suddenly to a heart attack, is saddened that she has never had dreams of her husband. My mother still has wonderful and realistic "visit" dreams with my father, who drowned in a boating accident 24 years ago. She finds it hard to wake up from these dreams, but enjoys the afterglow.
PS believes that dreams of the dead are not really about the person we loved and lost - they are about US and what is going on in our lives. They may also be about processing loss (or not, as in denial dreams where we believe the person is still alive and are confused because we thought they were dead.)
I think there are several other possibilities. Perhaps they are simply manifestations of a love that lives on. Or maybe they really are visits.
I miss him.
I liked the following commentary about people trying to convince a son that he should be happy his aging mother had decided to move into assisted living.
"The overbearing unanimity of this chorus suggests to me that its real purpose is less to reassure than to suppress, to deny the most obvious and natural emotion that attends this occasion, which is sadness.
My sadness is purely selfish, I know. My friends are right; this was all Mom’s idea, she’s looking forward to it, and she really will be happier there. But it also means losing the farm my father bought in 1976, where my sister and I grew up, where Dad died in 1991. We’re losing our old phone number, the one we’ve had since the Ford administration, a number I know as well as my own middle name. However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister. And beneath it all, even at age 45, there is the irrational, little-kid fear: Who’s going to take care of me? I remember my mother telling me that when her own mother died, when Mom was in her 40s, her first thought was: I’m an orphan."
~ Tim Kreider, NYT Opinionator Blog, 1/20/2013
It's a great short essay on the indignities and control issues l associated with aging and loss. I also liked the shocking because it shouldn't be shocking title - You Are Going to Die. It's worth reading the rest of the article.
It has been just over 2.5 years since Doug died. The ache and missing remain. But most days I am involved in the present, although I do continue to experience difficulty with concentration and motivation, and feel less productive and engaged than I used to be. I do not want the memories to be millstones. I consciously try not to be defined by widowhood.
The pain is orders of magnitude less than it was during the first months and year - there is really no comparison. I wish those who have recently lost a loved one could know how much the pain will soften with time, as I think it would give them hope.
I hardly remember how bad it was. I wonder if it is like childbirth, where the mind cannot bear to recall that visceral, intense and heartbreaking pain. I can see myself lying face down on the grass in our yard, crying hysterically, yet it seems removed. I am somewhat detached from that person and place now. I often feel happiness, although with an underlying sadness. Maybe part of the process is building a protective shell around the wound - much like an oyster forms a pearl around the grain of sand. The sand is always there, underneath.
I cannot say how much of my own healing and distraction has come from the changes I have made or allowed - moving to a different house, changing jobs, going through grief counseling, simplifying my life, and entering into another relationship - but they are probably significant factors. I would not call what I have done "moving on" as much as "letting go" - of the pain, not of the love.
Use the first anniversary of your loss to thank the people who helped you make it through. You can post your note at recover-from-grief.com (you need to join first) and then send the link to those you thanked.
This activity can add a more positive perspective, by reminding us there are still things to be thankful for.
I've added this to the list of suggestions on healing rituals.
I'm also going to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful bluebirding friend Vicki, who reads each and every blog and finds all my blithering typos. :-).
Giving shape to a painful experience is powerful because it helps us to see first, how we got through it; second, how we can share it. The experience doesn't stay trapped within us, unspoken, curdling - instead the art of arranging and transforming it reduces the burden....The process of assigning the experience a beginning, a middle and an end, of giving it form, is a way of mastering it.
~ Karen E. Bender, The Accidental Writer (NYT Essay 01/27/2013)
I saw a "True Romance" cartoon in the Funny Times. A young couple is about to kiss as the woman says "Are you sure about this? The only painless way out of a relationship is to be the first to die."
Sap that I am, I always read the Sunday NY Times column called "Modern Love." This week's was about a 70 year old divorced woman who married an 80 year old widower. Eve Pell says:
"OLD LOVE is different. In our 70s and 80s, we had been through enough of life’s ups and downs to know who we were, and we had learned to compromise. We knew something about death because we had seen loved ones die. The finish line was drawing closer. Why not have one last blossoming of the heart?
I was no longer so pretty, but I was not so neurotic either. I had survived loss and mistakes and ill-considered decisions; if this relationship failed, I’d survive that too. And unlike other men I’d been with, Sam was a grown-up, unafraid of intimacy, who joyfully explored what life had to offer. We followed our hearts and gambled, and for a few years we had a bit of heaven on earth." (Click to read the entire column.)
Eve Pell's husband died first, but not painlessly - it was cancer.
In one of the many books on grief that I got after I was widowed, I recall reading about a husband and wife who were both terminally ill. They both wanted to be the one to die last, to be able to care for the other until to the end, and to spare their spouse the pain of being left behind.
On the next page of the NYT, PS noticed a column entitled "A Lifetime of Happiness, Part 2" about a widow and widower who had just gotten married.. He laughed when he read that "The bride, 97, is keeping her name." The groom is 86. She turned him down multiple times, due to the difference in their ages. "I told her repeatedly that whatever care she needed, I'd already committed to....She could rely on me no matter whether we married or not." Mrs. Bryant finally accepted his proposal. She said "I didn't think it was the thing to do because I don't have many that many years ahead of me, but he said "That's all the more reason."
Ack, I keep going back to the crummy comedy Go On, hoping there might be something I can relate to. Matthew Perry (of Friends fame) plays a recovering widower who attends a Loss and Life Change group. Two things bug me about this show: 1) Perry's character never experiences anything that looks to me like the pain of grief, and 2) He hates it when he hallucinates that his wife is present. Her "ghost" is affable - it's not like she's tormenting him. Despite that, sometimes there is a worthwhile nugget.
In the last episode, he was kissing a woman he just met, when his wife (Janey) appears. And she brings a ghost date along. Someone suggests that the reason he had this dream is guilt - about dating someone else, as if he is betraying his (dead) wife - a common enough reaction. But then they also suggest that the reason he has imagined she brought a date along was to punish himself - to make himself feel what he imagines Janey would feel.
For some reason, I never thought of dreams as a way to yell at yourself...or to accept yourself. It made me see the dream I had on 1/22 in a new light. Maybe the encounter with Doug and his show of complete love acknowledged that he would (and I should) accept my new life, and the fact that I am involved with PS. I know this on an intellectual level, but the heart has a mind of its own.
It also reminded me of the underlying aquifer of sadness. The sadness for my own loss may fade someday, but I'm not sure I can ever not be sad about what Doug lost.
Valentine's Day can be sad for those who have lost a loved one.
But here is my gift to you on this day.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an alternative definition of "valentine" is "to greet with song at mating-time (said of birds.)"
I hope you hear bird song today as a reminder of the person you love still.
PS's wife died five years ago yesterday, after a terrible battle with cancer. Last night we went out on the frozen lake to light and release a sky lantern. It was snowing. The lantern gently floated skyward until it took its place among the stars, and then winked out.
PS said somehow five years seems significant...maybe because we highlight it for wedding anniversaries. Why not multiples of one year or two or six?
In June, it will be three years since Doug died. I had a dream last night that I was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition, but it didn't seem to matter much to me. At times, life still seems somewhat senseless without him. I feel I remain much too fragile. I would prefer to be as far beyond it as other people probably think I am. I wish I could be as happy as he seems to be in my dreams.
PS and I wished on a wishbone...I lost and PS won. I said, "Darn, my wish was for YOU!" PS then revealed that his wish was for ME. (But you can't reveal the specifics of the wish, or the 'rules' say it won't come true :-)
Maybe this is a definition of love - when your wishbone wish is for the person you love.
And maybe that is one of the many reasons why it is so hard to lose someone we love - because there is nothing more we can wish for them, other than peace. All we can do is remember them and keep love in our heart.
I was working on a bluebird presentation when I found a little gem - Firewater. It is a 9 second video clip that one of Doug's climbing buddies had sent me many years ago. It is classic Doug.
I watched it over and over... and my reactions surprised me. A year or two ago I would have burst into tears. This time: I laughed. I cried - but inside. It was bittersweet. But mostly I felt gratitude. For the video shared, for the opportunity to hear his voice and see his silliness again, for my good fortune at having him in my life.
It reminded me of this comment by Joe Biden. It doesn't matter whether or not you are a fan of the Vice President. He has experienced loss and what he says here is truth.
There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son, or daughter, or your wife or your husband, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner than later.
HOW I SET MY CAR ON FIRE TODAY
1. While driving, I heard a weird clicking noise in the backseat. Wondered what it was. Assumed it was Styrofoam that maybe PS had whipped in the back seat. (PS says the main purpose of being in a relationship is to have someone to blame.). Too lazy to look in the backseat to check while driving.
2. Smelled something burning, figured it was the car in front of me.
3. Saw smoke wafting up between the bucket seats, figured out it was NOT coming from the car in front of me.
4. Pulled over.
5. Looked for source of smoke. Saw flames coming from the backseat.
6. Thought about taking a picture but decided it would be better to put the fire out first. For another fraction of a second, considered letting the whole thing go up in flames.
7. Grabbed a handful of snow from the side of the road and threw it on flames, snuffing them out.
7. Realized that the positive and negative cables of my portable battery jumper had shifted around and come into contact with each other, creating a spark which then ignited the seat cushion and a plastic container I was going to return to Joyce - sorry Joyce.
So...how could I be this idiotic? I would say that I related jumper cables with the kind you usually keep in a vehicle. When not connected to anything, they are harmless - so what if they touch each other? Same thing for portable chargers. And even if they ARE connected to a battery jumper, don't you need to turn it on or something to get juice? (Apparently not.) So what if the instructions that came with the charger said to ALWAYS put the cables BACK on the holders on opposite sides of the portable battery after use. That sounded like some kind of precaution that involves too much work (it's hard to wrap them around the sides and get them to stay.) So, I left them all tangled up in the back of the car. When I pushed the seat back, and then things got jostled while driving over bumpy dirt roads, the metal of the cables eventually kissed.
Nobody was hurt, except the seat cushion which now sports a large charred cavity..
Of course, afterwards I thought about why this backseat barbecue would NOT have happened if Doug had been around.
#1.I wouldn't have needed a portable battery charger. Doug would have fixed the battery in my car so it wasn't constantly dying. (I eventually brought it to the repair shop, after being stuck with a dead battery a half dozen times. But I left the charger in the car.)
#2. Doug cleaned out my car all the time and would have neatened things up and probably put the charger away.
#3. Even if it was still in the car, Doug would not have left the jumpers in a tangled mess. He was uber-tidy with tools. He also would have recognized the sparking hazard.
So what have I learned? Almost 2.5 years later, I am STILL not paying attention, and have still not adjusted to not being able to depend on Doug to keep me out of trouble.
A friend told me about an amazing dog breeder who donated and delivered an entire litter of nine puppies to families at Sandy Hook. See an article about it here: Sandy Hook teacher: My Goldendoodle reminds me there is good in the world
One of the families who received a puppy had lost one of their two children. I can imagine that the remaining child and the parents found great comfort in their new puppy.
When someone you love dies, the object of your affection is suddenly gone, leaving a gaping hole. A puppy or kitten will relish being the recipient of that love, and will return it unconditionally. They fill an empty house with LIFE. They represent the future - something to look forward to. They are a distraction from pain. They make you laugh. They will be by your side when your cry. They won't tell you to stop crying even though your heart is still broken, or say things like "it's okay" or "get over it."
Of course a new pet is a responsibility, and the newly bereaved can be completely overwhelmed by day to day things, so it should be their choice.
I like this quote from the article: "We at Sandy Hook school continue to move forward and draw great strength from each other and from those who have reached out to us."
I am not a fan of billboards, but I saw one that I liked when I was driving to New York a few weeks ago. It was pink, and simply said "We are Sandy Hook. We choose Love."
PS and I were at the opticians today. He needs new glasses and I wanted veto authority since I'm the one who actually sees them (he never even looks in the mirror.) I was telling him which ones I liked and which I didn't, when the customer next to us chimed in and said she thought he looked handsome in one of my rejects, and then added "But I don't want to get in between you and your wife!" I blurted out "That would be hard because she's dead."
It sounded so AWFUL! I tried to soften it by saying we were both widowers but ... still. I don't know what got into me. I am not his wife - I am? I was? Doug's wife. But this woman didn't need to know the awkwardness of it all. Best to stay silent in these scenarios I suppose.
Last week, a fellow mourner and blogger (see http://planbeach.wordpress.com/) asked whether I find myself waiting for the proverbial "other shoe to drop." I found it interesting that the NY Times Modern Love article this weekend had that very same subject in the title.
The author maintains a romantic bomb shelter, outfitted for reversion to life as a single girl in case her current relationship fails. She has also learned from her widowed partner that "A widower loves with the knowledge that love sometimes outlives the relationship. We love at our own risk in our own time."
For me, the sense of waiting has diminished some with time (it has been 2.5 years since my husband died suddenly.) However, it has not gone away completely. I still fear that the same thing will happen all over again if I get too committed. I also recognize that fearing interferes with living.
"To hell with your cancer. I've been living with cancer for the better part of a year. Right from the start, it's a death sentence. That's what they keep telling me. Well, guess what? Every life comes with a death sentence, so every few months I come in here for my regular scan, knowing full well that one of these times - hell, maybe even today - I'm gonna hear some bad news. But until then, who's in charge? Me. That's how I live my life."
~ the character Walter White on Breaking Bad (TV series)
It's wise to remember that we are ALL going to die at some point - so live in the interim!
"Talking about our problems is our greatest additction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys."~ Rita Schiano
A therapist posted this, as she believes that what we focus on expands. Try it and see?
I am off to experience some unplugged joy on a sleepy island in the Carribean.. Even though it will never be the same, life does go on for us - if we allow it. I have chosen to allow it.
I just got back from a week long lazy-cation in the Caribbean, courtesy of PS. It was wonderfully relaxing and luxurious - not at all what I am used to.
I love PS. I need him. I am lucky to have him as a partner. I live in PS's house now. It is lovely, but for some reason it still doesn't feel like home. Sometimes it feels like I am living someone else's life. It's as if I was plopped into a story line written by someone else. I don't feel like I'm really all here.
A fellow blogging friend who lost her dad a year ago said it best - she and her widowed mom equate "the past year to living on the periphery, watching life spin by and everyone else is living and moving on while we're all in slow motion."
Today I went back to my old house (which my friends are renting.) The goats jumped all over me, the ducks were begging me for food, daffodils we planted were bursting out, and tree swallows were doing their aerial acrobatics, and my old neighbors were out and about. I was surprised when the tears hit, and by how much I miss our life in that home.
I still don't believe Doug is gone. I don't have an alternative explanation for why he is not here. It just seems impossible.
At least I can think about him and smile now. And I have not forgotten how he used to drive me crazy with his innocent, well-intentioned idiocy. Like using Windex to clean my Ethan Allen wooden furniture,washing my lingerie in the same load with a blanket covered with goat fur and duck poop, or scrubbing himself down with Comet in the shower after a hard day's work.
My friend said Doug's old workshop is magic. Every time he needs a tool, or something like carburetor cleaner, he asks Doug and all of a sudden there it is.
I am not religious, but sometimes I do ask Doug for help.
After months of training, runners struggle to the finish line. Supportive family and friends scan the incoming for their loved ones.
Then the bombs explode.
In an instant, the world changes for some - and for others, it ends.
In the sorrowful aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, people once again find themselves trying to make sense of senseless tragedy. Why? How? What does it mean?
I am sorry to say that, as far as I can tell, it doesn't mean anything other than people and life can be cruel, and we are all going to die in the end, one way or another. It means there are no guarantees. There is no certainty. That in a blink of an eye, life as you know it can change forever.
So, what are we meant to do?
All we can do is add meaning to our own lives and the lives of others. We can choose to be kind and compassionate. We can create something positive out of loss, by remembering those we have lost, by doing something that does have meaning, by doing good to counteract evil. By helping to make the world a better place.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
~ Margaret Mead Read
April is the cruellest month,
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow....
~ T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, I. The Burial of the Dead
One would think that spring would be a joyous time. The snow melts, the weather warms up, skies are blue, flowers bloom, leaves unfurl, grass turns green. However, a number of studies indicate that depression and suicide rates tend to peak in spring and early summer - perhaps due to meterological, social or economic factors. But I wonder if it is associated with the changes that spring brings.
For those who have lost a loved one, Spring can be a hard time. It means life is sprouting everywhere around us, reminding us of where life isn't. The dead don't care or know what they are missing, but we do.
Last night I had a dream that I saw Doug. I was so excited I bolted upright and woke myself up. He was so happy and I was so delighted to be with him. I love these dreams. Early on, I used to cry in my sleep.
My mom still enjoys "visit" dreams from my dad who died in a boating accident over 25 years ago.
I listen to friends complaining about their life, their partner...wishing this or that could be different. He snores. She wants to live in a different place. He doesn't make enough money. She spends too much money.
I wish I could tell them that if they lost it tomorrow, they would probably spend the rest of their life wishing they could have it back - all of it - even the less than perfect parts.
Take it from someone who knows.
At times it surprises me how terribly I miss Doug, three years after his life on earth ended. I've made many changes, lead a full life, and have been lucky enough to find love again, but still.... I guess I need to allow for the fact that there will probably always be heartache associated with his loss and mine.
Perhaps the main difference is that it goes from being an open wound to a scar.
I frequently remind myself not to get stuck in the past, because the present is all there is now.
But I know I will love Doug until the day I die.
“...words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
~ Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
For months after losing Doug, I could not bring myself to say "dead." For years, I have referred to myself as "Doug's wife." I guess it's time to admit I am "Doug's widow."
I have slowly transitioned from "our" to "my," although I still have to think about it, and it feels awkward and forced coming out of my mouth.
Today a woman shared a story about her father. He was a paraplegic due to an inherited condition. His father had died when he was just 13. His takeaway? He began each day by saying (in a cheery voice) this to his children: "Every day is a blessing and a bonus. What will you do with yours today?"
I like that. I'm going to try it on myself!
Many, many times after Doug died, I considered walking in front of an oncoming truck. But I would have felt bad for the driver, and also worried that I wouldn’t die and would just go from being a heart-wrecked mess to a mangled heart-wrecked mess. Now, much to my surprise, life is actually good again. I sure am glad I didn’t do it!!!!!!!!!!
Here are some very interesting excerpts from: When Numbers Mislead - by Stephanie Coontz, New York Times, 5/26/2013
"It's always seductive to know where one stands in relation to the average....But averages can be misleading when a distribution is heavily skewed at one end, with a small number of unrepresentative outliers pulling the average in their direction."
"On average, people’s reactions to stressful events like divorce or bereavement indicate a sharp and long-lasting decline in personal well-being, followed by a slow and gradual recovery.... But in this new paper, “The Trouble With Averages,” the psychologist Anthony Mancini shows that.... In the case of loss, the average is skewed by a relatively small percentage of people who exhibit substantial, persistent distress. Most people actually experience “a modest, short-lived increase in distress that subsides within a few months.”
"When Mr. Mancini and his colleagues studied people’s reaction to the loss of a spouse, they found that only 20 percent of the bereaved went through the “conventional” pattern of grieving — a sharp dip in well-being followed by a gradual return to previous levels of satisfaction. Almost 60 percent did not experience persistent sadness. When we assume that “normal” people need “time to heal,” or discourage individuals from making any decisions until a year or more after a loss, as some grief counselors do, we may be giving inappropriate advice. Such advice can cause people who feel ready to move on to wonder if they are hardhearted."
" Almost 15 percent of the bereaved individuals that the researchers studied reported persistently low levels of life satisfaction after their loss. But because they measured people’s well-being four years before as well as after the loss, the researchers were able to show that this was not caused by the bereavement. Rather, it was part of a chronic pattern of low life satisfaction that long preceded the loss. Surprisingly, about 5 percent of the sample reported higher life satisfaction after their loss. They might have been in a stressful caregiving role or trapped in an unhappy marriage. Treating them as if they ought to be depressed could just make them feel guilty."
I learned optimism from Doug. The guy was born happy. His mind was like a steel sieve - all the bad stuff drained away; he only retained the good parts. Kind of like a puppy.
He was thrilled with every rainbow, and every time the windows in our 170 year old house opened (they stuck shut a lot.) When he would play softball, even when his team got mercied (which happened often), he would revel in re-running his double play. After we mowed the lawn, we would get a glass of wine and walk the property hand in hand, admiring how good it looked.
He taught me to enjoy and be grateful. And for that I will always be grateful.
Doug was a tissue donor. I just saw a wonderful poem written to an organ donor - here is an excerpt
.... If I could speak to those who mourn for you,
I'd try to tell them how your light still shines
on every page I read or write, in every smiling face I see.
We may not have been on the same path before,
but today you walk with me.
~ Frances Talbott-White
Here's one I didn't worry about - what to do with their electronic possessions after they are gone. I do know many widows and widowers who have struggled because they didn't know passwords to accounts and were unable to access them.
There is a scene in the TV series Go On (cancelled because it was not very good - but it did have its moments) where a widower is being haunted by his wife. She disappears and he yells after her "Wait, come back- what's the iTunes password?!)
Fortunately, Doug and I kept a list. (SecureSafe is a company that offers free storage of passwords for one beneficiary.) The article also speaks to what to do with online photo albums, Facebook accounts, email accounts, etc.
Google has also created an Inactive Account Manager (also known as the Google Death Manager) that allows you to decide if and when your account is treated as inactive, what happens with your data and who is notified. Read more.
As if dealing with death wasn't already complicated enough....
My parents moved out of the house we grew up in about ten years after my twin sister died. My mom was doing a last walk through of the empty house and sat down on the living room floor and wept. My brother came into the room and asked why she was crying. She said, "What if Stacey comes back? How will she know where to find us?"
I had a dream Doug was not dead - he came back, and I was thrilled but at the same time very concerned because I had given away all his clothes to charity.
I live on a lake. Flocks of migrating geese come and go. Except this year, one goose remained. It appears to have a broken wing. When all the other geese departed, it stayed behind.
Like humans, geese are social creatures. On occasion it hangs with a solitary male Mallard. The rest of the time it swims in circles, and sometimes honks to no reply.
It looks so forlorn. My heart aches when I see it.
I project loneliness onto it. I have learned what it's like to be totally alone - even in the company of other non-kindred souls. I feel compassion for the bird. We tried and failed to catch it to bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator. It will probably not survive the winter.
More coming if you can stand it. Might want to have some Prozac handy. See Blog, continued.
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