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Unexpected Acts of Kindness

My husband's kindness“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” This quote is getting thousands of “Likes” on Facebook, but do we really practice kindness in our everyday lives?

In March of 2002, my husband Rex and I moved to a small fixer upper in Palos Verdes. Our next door neighbor is a single guy named Mark. He is barely 30, and like Rex, enjoys schmoozing in the driveway about home improvement. Rex invites Mark to one of his plays at the university, and that’s where we meet his fiancee Karen.  They get married, Karen moves in next door, and before long they’re raising a family. No matter how busy they get, they remain our “go to” neighbors when we go on vacation or need a favor.

As their children begin to grow, my husband’s health begins to decline. At first it’s almost imperceptible, but as the years progress he becomes increasingly tired with bouts of confusion. On an ordinary day in January, 2014, I drive to the Westside to babysit my son and daughter-in-law’s 4 kids. As soon as they leave for their “date,” I get an urgent call on my cell phone. “Rex is in his car in the driveway,” my neighbor Karen says. “The car alarm is going off and he’s just sitting there, staring into space.”

I’m with 4 kids under 10, even if I could leave them, it would take me an hour and a half to get home in traffic. I tell her I’ll call her back and start making some calls. Meanwhile, Karen brings Rex into my house and manages to turn off the car alarm. Her kids come over too, because Mark isn’t home and they’re too young to be alone. Fortunately, I reach my step-daughter who agrees to drive from Burbank and stay with her dad until I can get home.

By the time I get there Rex is running a high fever. I call 911 and he’s taken by ambulance to Torrance Memorial Hospital. Everything happens fast, and before I know it he’s having his gallbladder removed. The doctor-on-call tells me not to worry; everything else checks out fine and he’ll be ready to go home in a few days. Even though he’s given a clean bill of health, as I reflect on it now, that was the beginning of the end.

On July 28th, 2016, Rex took another emergency trip to Torrance Memorial. This time I have my own doctor involved, and she personally runs all the tests that should have been run in 2014. By noon the next day we have a diagnosis: Stage 4 Cancer. We do surgery, we do radiation, we do everything possible. But on September 17th, 2016, my sweet husband dies in a hospital bed at home and none of us knows what hit us.

With all the funeral arrangements and commotion in our family, I forget to tell Karen and Mark. About 3 weeks go by when Karen knocks on my door to ask about Rex. “Oh Karen, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. He passed away 3 weeks ago.” She stands on my doorstep as tears start flooding her eyes. “We loved him,” she sobs. “Mark is going to be devastated.”

The next few months go by in a blur. I do all the household chores and try to keep it together. I continue going to my daughter’s house in Costa Mesa on Mondays to watch her kids. On those days I don’t get home until after 7 pm. Monday is garbage day, so I try to get the cans out on Sunday nights.

One Monday night when I get home, I notice that my empty cans have already been taken in.  The neighbors on my other side were also very helpful when Rex was sick, so maybe it was them. Oh wait, I’m close to the rabbi who lives around the corner, so it could have been him. I have no idea who my “Secret Angel” is, and I want to find out so I can thank them.

The next Monday night as I’m driving home, I see Mark and his 10 year old son Bobby in front of my house.  They’re wheeling my garbage cans to the side yard.  I roll down my car window and call out, “Are you the one who’s been doing this for the past few weeks? He looks like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “We try to,” he answers sheepishly; “it’s no big deal.”

The next day I see him alone in his driveway and go over. “Thank you so much, Mark,” I say. “You don’t have to do this every week, really.” He smiles at me with a look of embarrassment and says, “I want Bobby to learn about neighbors and chores. And besides,” he pauses with a catch in his throat, “I loved Rex. I want to do this for him.”

That was a year ago and they still take out my garbage on Sunday nights and return the cans on Monday, without saying a word. A few months ago, when the fog in my brain started to lift, I bought Bobby a junior size football that he freely retrieves from my backyard whenever it goes over the fence. For Thanksgiving I made them all a huge gift basket with gummy bears and other kid friendly treats.  They’re always appreciative, but they don’t need gifts or recognition.  Their act of kindness seems to be helping them and much as it does me.

A few weeks ago I knocked on their door, because an unfamiliar car was blocking my driveway. When Karen answers, one of her friends hears me and appologizes profusely. “I was just dropping off my kids, I’ll be gone in a second.” I start chatting with Bobby and his 9 years old sister Julie. We’re laughing about our dogs digging under the fence so they can play together. Julie is very talkative and I’m enjoying the friendly banter with my next door neighbors’ kids.

I get home from work feeling tired and cranky. As I approach my front door I see a pink gift bag with ribbons overflowing. Inside there is a handmade card and on the front it says: “A little Gift for…” I open it and it says, “YOU! Look in this bag! I made this for you!! “Love, JuJulie's gift of kindnesslie!” I rummage through the bag and I find it: a 2 inch wide heart, made from over 30 pink beads. It’s adorable! This 9 year old child’s gesture has touched me beyond words.

It’s easy to resort to self-pity when you lose someone you love. Believe me, I’ve done more than my share. Yet who would have thought that the single guy next door would morph into this beautiful, loving family? Their unexpected acts of kindness have been instrumental in helping to lift my spirits.

They make me think of all the other caring people who’ve been there for me since I lost my husband.  I am so grateful. Acts of kindness remind us of our shared humanity. For the past year and a half I’ve been the recipient, and now it is time to pay it forward. The greatest acts of kindness are helping others without expecting anything in return. In Hebrew we call it a Mitzvah. And what better way to honor the memory of my dear husband Rex.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D

 

 

 

Vacationing as a Widow

Travel Perspective from a WidowDo relationships look the same on land
and at sea? Does travelling as a widow  change your perspective? I’m  on a cruise with my sister and brother-in-law, and as much as I love them, it’s my first vacation without my husband. My sweet Rex  died a year and a half ago and I am still trying  to navigate the seas… pun intended.

 

A pretty blonde on Deck 5 leans across the bistro table and smiles at her husband.  She notices that his coffee is darker than usual and whispers, “Do you need more milk for your coffee?” He smiles back and looks deeply into her eyes. “Thanks babe, that would be great!” They are in their 20’s and obviously in love. The gentle way they speak to each other reminds me of the sweetness that defined my marriage. Rex never raised his voice to me and always made sure I had everything I needed.

 

Two tables over, a 40 something couple in bright red tee shirts  engage in an animated conversation.  A teen-aged girl with a thick brown pony tail runs over to their table. Another girl, her sister maybe, joins her and together they begin their appeal.  “Mom, can we pleeeeese have money for ice cream?” After some playful banter and a lot of laughing, the girls run off to purchase their treats.

 

I have two grown children, so the days of  them begging for ice cream money are long gone.  Fortunately, my kids are self-supporting with jobs, homes, and families of their own. I’m proud of them and love my six beautiful grandchildren. As I watch this family, I long for the day when my kids needed me that way. I’m fine on my own, but how nice it would be to put extra milk in my husband’s coffee.

 

As I start feeling sorry for myself, an older man passes by, pushing his wife in a wheelchair. Just then my focus shifts to a 50ish year old woman as she grabs her husband’s hand on the steps so she doesn’t lose her footing. Yes, cruising is for couples, and  I’m grateful for the chance to be spending quality time with my sister and brother-in-law. And yet, as I watch all the couples stroll by, I am once again hit with the reality of being a widow. I’m trying to have a good time, when suddenly the tears come uninvited.

 

I’ve been a couple for so long, that it feels like I’m missing a limb. I know the “rules” for being married, I just don’t know how to behave as a widow. Will I just get used to being alone?  Or will I  tag along with married friends and relatives on their vacations? Maybe I’ll find girlfriends to travel with.  Or would it be easier to just stay home to avoid the discomfort? I decide to call it a day and go to my cabin to indulge in a little pity party.

 

Fortunately, by the next morning my attitude has improved. I drag myself out of bed and go for coffee on the Promenade Deck. To my right I hear a 70ish year old woman with died orange hair berating her husband. Her voice is loud and shrill.  “Didn’t you go to the bathroom?” she scolds. “I told you to go before we  left the room. You’ll never find a clean toilet in port! Why don’t you ever listen to me?” He doesn’t look embarrassed, he’s apparently used to this, so I simply look away.

 

We get off the ship in Aruba and an overweight man in his 60’s shouts across the gangway to his wife. “It’s too slippery, I can’t do these steps,” he yells. “That’s not my fault,” she retorts, “If you lost weight like you’re supposed to, it wouldn’t be a problem!” She eventually goes over to him and helps him down to steps. “I knew this cruise wasn’t a good idea,” I hear her complain under her breath.

 

Marriage isn’t perfect, I understand that first hand. Rex and I  certainly had our share of problems. My first year as a widow I was angry all the time,  (in between bouts of depression). Now I’m remembering  the good times, and  probably idealizing them in the process. I long for his company when I have something on my mind that I’m burning to share. Talking things through with him always helped me make better  sense of my feelings. I miss the easy way we could talk about our day, books we’d read, politics, theatre, and especially the people we loved. We had such fun going places at home or away, and I miss his company, his companionship, his loving eyes.

 

And yet, there are days when I’m almost comfortable being a widow.  I can walk at my own pace and make my own decisions. I can stay up as late as I want and not tiptoe around the house when he’s napping. Don’t get me wrong, I miss him terribly, and would give anything in the world to have him  by my side.

 

I am grateful that we had a loving marriage that thrived both on land and at sea. I will always love you, Rex, nothing could ever change that.  I’m just starting to hear my own voice and walk my own path. And with that comes a new freedom that I’m actually starting to enjoy. Thank you, Rex, for giving me courage to enter this next phase of my life un-coupled.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D

Childhood Trauma and Eating Disorders

Strawberries were saved for my mother and I never knew why.
My mother and I in 1959

I reach for some strawberries as my father unpacks them from his grocery bag. “No, sweetheart,” he says, “we’re saving those for mommy.” I’m 12 or 13, and my mother is sick in bed. My father reassures me that she’ll get well, so I go to my room as he tends to her needs. But she doesn’t get well. She doesn’t get well at all.

Three months after my fourteenth birthday, my father picks my sister and I up from school a little after noon.  We have no idea why until he starts driving to the hospital. On the way he tells us the shocking truth. “Mommy’s had breast cancer for the past 5 years.  She was rushed to the hospital this morning because she’s dying. She will probably be gone by the time we get there.”

When we get to the hospital, we take the elevator up to her floor. My father goes by himself to the nurse’s station. It is very quiet so I’m able to hear every word that is said. “I’m so sorry, your wife has passed away, would you like to go into her room and see her?”  The nurse asks matter of factly. My father replies, “No, I want to remember her alive.”  And then he starts to cry—big heaving sobs that sound like they’ll end. I am standing by myself, and all I can think of is eating a huge bowl of strawberries.

It’s 1961, a time when cancer was kept secret even from family members.  Grieving was also discouraged, do we all try to act normal and pretend nothing traumatic has happened. My father hires a housekeeper to clean in the afternoons and prepare dinner.  She goes about her daily tasks rarely interacting with me.  I stay up in my room and find solace in my own little secret.

When the housekeeper isn’t looking I put two pieces of thin sliced bread together in the same slot of the toaster.  When they pop up, I separate them and smooth butter on the soft, untoasted insides.  “Umm…. delicious, just like fresh baked bread.”  After I stuff down about  6 slices, the housekeeper approaches from the hall.  I tell her I’m going to the store on the corner and get out of her way.

Grabbing some money, I run down the street.  When I get to the store, I stand at the counter and my mouth starts to water. Through the glass I see the tempting treats: freshly made donuts with gooey, glazed topping. My mother didn’t allow us bread with dinner, nor did we ever have sweets for dessert.  We had jello, canned fruit cocktail, or when we were lucky, fresh whole strawberries.

I reach in my pocket and tell the clerk at the store I want six donuts.  I feel scared and guilty, like I’m breaking some kind of law.  So I hurry home and go quickly up to my room to hide from the housekeeper.  I wolf down the donuts as fast as I can, afraid that if I stop my mother will appear and grab them away from me .  But she doesn’t appear.  She’s dead.  When I finish the bag I am relieved. I haven’t been caught and my heart finally stops racing.  But I am far from satisfied.

In the first year after my mother died I gained 25 pounds. I also grew 4 inches so I was able to keep it hidden. When the weight started to show I would starve my self to compensate. I’d eat huge amounts of food and then punish myself by dieting mercilessly.  Food became my best friend and worst enemy.

It’s hard to believe by today’s standards, but it was 20 years before I got any help. After years of denial, I found a therapist and started feeling my feelings. I learned healthier ways to reduce my anxiety. l began to understand my feelings of guilt and how to let go of them. And most importantly, I learned what it means to self sooth.

Even though my eating disorder is a thing of the past, I still struggle with my relationship to food.  Sometimes I’m in remission for years at a time, then someone I love gets sick or dies, and I’m 14 years old again.

Today I’m in a period of grace, even though I’m grieving for my husband who died a year and a half ago.  But instead of numbing my feelings with food, I am expressing them through writing. Yes, I have actually learned to comfort myself by telling my truth. And to me, it’s a lot more satisfying than eating donuts or forbidden bowls of strawberries.

Sydell Weiner, PhD

Is It OCD Or Coping With Life?

This is the wall unit that I needed my dear Rex’s help with!

I move the books on my wall unit so they’re grouped by height. Am I being  OCD, or is this just how I cope?  Standing back to admire my work, I think, “Hmmm…I need a vase or a sculpture next to the books on the second shelf.”  I try a red vase…too bright.  Then I try a tan one…too tall. Finally I hit the jackpot with a bowl of white marble balls.  I love it. I think. By tomorrow I’ll probably rearrange it again. My mind goes to the iron sculpture that would be just perfect in that spot.

I can’t stop moving things around. I arrange the dishes on the shelves in my dining room. Then I proceed to the kitchen, where I put pretty ceramic mugs in the cabinets with glass doors.  It feels creative and I applaud myself when something looks great.  But I do it for hours on end, and not being able to stop makes my feet hurt and convinces me that I’m seriously OCD.

But it works for me. It helps me shut out the pain that I don’t want to feel. Feeling means being upset and hearing that critical voice in my head. “How could you be so stupid?” or “Don’t be ridiculous!” Feeling means facing the guilt of being emotionally detached when my husband was dying.

Granted, I took care of all his physical needs and was an efficient, devoted wife. I drove  him to his doctors appointments, administered his medication, attended to his personal hygiene and arranged for hospice when it was time. But I cut myself off emotionally. I knew that if I allowed myself to feel, I would break into a million pieces.

About two weeks before Rex died, he got up from the hospital bed in the guest room and asked if he could lay down  with me in our room. “Sure,” I said, “but just for a little while, I don’t want you to fall out of bed.” He had fallen many times, and the hospital bed had side rails for just that reason. If only I had held you then, Rex, and absorbed the familiar feel of your body. I should have comforted you and reassured you and told you how much your love changed the landscape of my life.

Of course, you knew all that.   And if I asked you today you’d say, “You were great, darlin’, I couldn’t have asked for more.” And yet I know I held back. I held back because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you, the one person  in the world who knew my true heart. You never judged me when I was being OCD. Instead, you understood that arranging things was a distraction that got me through difficult times. You loved me, perhaps more purely, than I was able to love you.

I wish I had hung your scene designs more prominently in our home, but if they didn’t go with my “decor” they were relegated to the hall. Now they are flaunted in every single room. They remind me of all the plays we did together, and how your vision always inspired me to be a better director. I wish I had embraced your AA work with a more open heart, instead of being jealous of the time it took away from me. Check out the wall unit, Rex.  I have all your sobriety chips on the bottom shelf, and you would be so proud to see them displayed.

I miss your artistic eye as I continue to rearrange my shelves. You’re the only one who could have helped me decide between the red and tan vases.  Because no matter which I finally chose, you’d say, “You got that one right!” You had my back, and valued my opinion on just abut everything. But you’re not here anymore. WHY NOT?

Why do people leave when you need them the most: my mother, my father, my first shrink who committed suicide? And now you. And with you, I have lost your daughter. I have lost those wonderful Holiday Dinners with the whole blended family–my kids and grandkids, your daughter and son-in-law, and even my ex-husband and his sweet girlfriend, who we lost last summer.

Yes it hurts to feel, and that’s why I try to stay out of it. I go back to rearranging my shelves because it calms me. You can call it OCD, but for a few hours anyway, there are things in my life I can actually control.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D.

My Step-Mother’s Funeral

 

My Step-Mother's Funeral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I ride to the cemetery with my step-sister’s daughter, a red-headed beauty who always makes me feel included. My step-brother’s daughter is sitting in the back with her husband and they are all sharing memories. Their beloved grandmother passed away 2 days ago, and although though she was 90 years old, it was sudden and unexpected.

She was my step-mother and I loved her. She was married to my father for 36 years and we had a warm relationship, even after losing my father 15 years ago. But I live in California, and I never really thought of her as a mother.

My real mother died when I was 14. My father remarried a few years later, he sold our home and we moved in with her family. She had also been widowed, but her children adored my dad. The bond grew stronger as my step-siblings got married and had kids of their own. He loved the grandchildren, and took pride in caring for their emotional and financial needs.

When we get to the cemetery we stop at the mortuary to see if my step-sister and her husband have arrived.  It’s hot and muggy, and my hair is starting to frizz like it used to when I lived in New York. I feel like such an outsider among this group of step relatives.  But they were my father’s family and I’ve come to pay my respects.

When we get to the burial site I look for my mother’s grave.  She is buried next to my father, and now my step-mother will be on his other side. Her first husband is also buried there, and she’ll be placed between them. I know–one big happy family. But I can’t find my mother’s gravestone and I suddenly start to panic.

I leave the group of mourners and see a large pile of dirt that’s has been dug up in preparation for the new grave. I brush the orange clay dirt away with my fingertips, and slowly my mother is revealed: Janet Horowitz–1917-1961, Beloved Wife and Mother… forgotten by her husband, forsaken by her daughter who never learned to talk about her or grieve for her loss.  And once again I become that lonely girl of 14, looking down at my mother’s grave in utter disbelief.

“Mommy, why did you leave me? Why did you never hold me close enough or love me the way I needed you to? Why did I have to struggle without a family, while they got Daddy? How did she wind up getting 90 years, when you only got 44? Where were you when I was left to figure it out on my own?”

My heart is broken, but I dig up a stone from the ground and put it on my mother’s grave to let her know I was here.  “I love you mommy, and I will until the day I die…promise!” With tears dripping from my eyes, I join the other mourners to honor my step-mother, the love of my father’s life.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D.

 

Surviving Complicated Grief

Grief Therapist, Dr. Sydell Weiner
Surviving Grief

The hospital smells of disinfectant, trying to mask the presence of illness and grief. I walk into my husband’s room and give him a hug. I hold on tight, and even though he’s too weak to reciprocate, I relish the familiar touch and feel of his skin. How, I wonder, will I find the strength to witness his decline. He promised he’d never leave me, that he’d love me forever. But now he has cancer and promises are a thing of the past.

Six weeks later my sweet husband, Rex, passes peacefully at home. Even though I’m with him when he takes his last breath, I just stare in disbelief. Grief takes on many forms, and for now I feel like I’m watching a scene in a really bad play. I walk through the funeral, burial and reception like I’m a robot. I engage in conversation but I’m not really present. There’s a blanket between me and the rest of the world and nothing’s getting through.

When the feelings start to come they are complicated and not what I expected. The anger kicks in first. I tear through Rex’s tools and start packing them away. When I find corroded duplicates, I go to the dump and toss them out frantically. I call in a friend to take down the walls of his make-shift office in the garage. I clean out the space with a vengeance, furious at the mess that he left behind. If I’m going to be alone then I’ll do what I want, so don’t get in my way.

My kids are both grown with families of their own, and I don’t want to burden them unnecessarily. But toughing it out on my own is harder than I thought. Out of nowhere, with Rex gone 6 weeks, the tears start to come. They come at the supermarket when I can’t decide between peaches and plums. They come when the light turns red and I’m going to be 5 minutes late. I cry when the gas tank hits empty and I’ve forgotten to fill the tank. And again when the dishes pile up in the sink and the dishwasher hasn’t been unloaded. It doesn’t take much, but for the next 8 months the tears feel like they’re never going to end.

And then the fear kicks in. I’m in my 60’s, but suddenly I feel very old. How will I navigate this next phase of my life on my own? Will I be lonely for the rest of my days? What if I get in an accident and nobody knows about it until it’s too late? Will I have enough money to live comfortably if I need long term care? Who can I talk to when I’m feeling worried or sad or even happy and excited? Rex was my heart, the one I shared everything with, and now I have no idea where I’m supposed to turn.

I’m independent to a fault and resist reaching out, until I see a card from The Gathering Place. It’s run through Provident Little Company of Mary, and they’re offering a “Loss of Spouse” Grief Support Group. Even though I’m not Catholic, it’s close to my home so I agree to give it a chance. I go to the group for nine weeks and start connecting with other women. I start to make friends and suddenly I’m surrounded by people who understand. “How did you deal with Social Security?” “Do you have to take your husband’s name off the mortgage to set up a trust?” “What are you doing with his clothes?” “Who do you talk to when you are feeling hopeless?” And most importantly, “Tell me about your husband, what was he like?”

It’s over a year since I lost the love of my life, and although I’m still grieving I have begun to have hope. I journal every morning to stay in touch with my feelings. I honor my husband by sending him loving prayers throughout the day. I’ve learned to reach out and ask for help when I need it. I know who I can really talk to and who just wants me to move on. But mostly I’ve learned that I have not been abandoned. I have been loved and cherished by a man I adored, and that love gives me the strength to make it on my own.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D

Divorce: How to Keep Your Child Out of the Middle

Children and Divorce

Children are the innocent victims of divorce. They don’t ask for it, they don’t cause it, but their living conditions are often disrupted by it. Here are some ways you, as a parent, can make it easier for them:

1. Divorce is Not Their Fault:

Most Kids will internalize the conflict in your relationship or act up to divert attention away from from it. They need to be reassured that you will both love them and continue to be their parents even when you’re living apart. Remind them that the divorce isn’t because of anything they’ve done wrong and you will never divorce them.

2. Communicate Appropriately:

Remember that you’re the adult and they’re the child. It’s tempting to use them as confidantes, especially when there are no other adults in the home. Unfortunately, this creates parentified children, who worry unnecessarily and feel burdened by your problems. If your partner had an affair, for example, an 8 year old will not understand what that means and become anxious or upset. It’s more loving to just comfort them, and share your problems with friends, family or a therapist.
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Communication Basics: Stop Yelling At Me

Non-Violent Communication

If your relationship is stuck in a cycle of blame, you probably wonder what happened to the communication that brought you together. It may work in politics, but blaming your partner will never get your needs met in a relationship. You have a better chance of recapturing the intimacy with a few simple tools from Marshall Rosenberg’s in Non-Violent Communication.

1. Observations:

When you start a sentence with “you” or “you always…” your partner will hear it as criticism and probably become defensive. For example, “You’re always late, I can’t believe how inconsiderate you are!” is filled with blame and bound to start an argument. Instead, try calmly stating the behavior you observe without evaluation. If you say, “you’re 30 minutes late,” or “when you’re late I feel…(impatient, angry, worried, etc),” you’re off to a better start.

2. Feelings:

Expressing feelings is trickier than it sounds. For example, “I feel like you’re always criticizing me,” uses the word feel, but is more about your partner’s behavior than about what you feel. A healthier way to phrase it would be: “I feel hurt when you tell me that I didn’t do a good job.” To keep the feelings about you, try words like: angry, discouraged, scared, worried, frustrated and heartbroken. Your partner’s actions may trigger your feelings, but they are rarely the cause. More often, your feelings are rooted in unmet needs. Continue reading “Communication Basics: Stop Yelling At Me”

My Mother’s Story

My Mother's Story
Janet Kay Horowitz

Losing a mother  in childhood or adolescence leaves many unanswered questions. My mother’s story has been pieced together from faded memories, old photographs and isolated anecdotes. I hope it does justice to the woman I knew for only 14 years. 

My mother was born on May 5th, 1917, in Rochester, New York. Her parents both emigrated from Eastern Europe lured by the promise of a better life. Her father, Abraham Kay (born Kosovsky), came from Minsk in 1911, and her mother, Edith Garelick, from Poland in 1913. They were married in New York City on December 22, 1913, when Abe was 19 and Edith was 17.

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