Sunday, December 30, 2007

Swifter Than Eagles, More Powerful than Lions

One of the hardest things to do, as a mother of a soldier, is to avoid absorbing every story, every tragedy, as your own. Sometimes, it's a commanding officer being injured (or God forbid, worse) in a training accident. You have to accept these things will happen, and they aren't an omen. You have to take today, accept it, and move to tomorrow.

In Israel, such a small country, we are so very connected, one with the other. This means that we feel the joys and sorrows of a nation as our own. When something happens to a soldier, it is as if it happened to a member of our family, our son, our brother, ours. Gilad Shalit turned 21 years old and has been held captive in Gaza for more than a year. For all of his 20th year on this earth, his family never got a chance to talk to him, to hug him, to see and touch him. I find that so hard to imagine, as I share Elie's 20th year on this earth and celebrate each of his moments and accomplishments. I feel Gilad's mother's agony and his father's frustrations. But Gilad is alive and so, like his parents, I continue to hope (and pray) for his release.

This past Thursday, Elie left his base to come home early. The next morning, two boys he probably never met left their bases to go home. Elie spent Friday running errands and helping me prepare for the Sabbath. It was a slow day, more relaxing than most. He took a brief nap, did his laundry, played with his sister, teased his brothers, and helped us slide into the peaceful Sabbath, broken shortly before it began, by news.

Achikam Amichai and David Rubin decided to spend the day doing what they loved - hiking through the beautiful mountains south of Jerusalem. This morning, Elie returned to his base to continue his training in the Commanders Course. Achikam and David were buried last night.

I never met them, but I mourn for them; I feel their mothers' pain so deeply and wish I knew some words that would bring them comfort. I am haunted by their handsome faces, by the strength I see in their smiles. A friend from their community wrote these words...sometimes when words fail me, I find others that express so clearly what needs to be said. Thus it is with David Wilder's words:

Achikam Amichai and David Rubin were warriors. Both served in elite units, one naval and the other air force. They were trained to protect their country, to defend their people, to do whatever necessary to defeat the enemy. They faced a surprise attack, but did not despair. At least two of the terrorists attacking them were killed; perhaps also a third one also. During the battle they fell, but they saved the life of a young woman who was with them. Had they not fought back, had they died without a fight, she too, almost certainly, would have been killed. They knew the odds were against them, but they knew that you do not give up without a fight.


Their love for their land, for their people, for their beliefs, their courage, their very lives, is the quintessential Jew in Israel: this is true leadership; this is the way a Jew should live today.

We may have lost two of the best, but we have, staring us in the eyes, the Jewish Israeli of the future. Not Olmert, Peres, Livni, not Mazuz, Beinish, or Barak, rather people like Achikam and David, they are our future. Achikam means, my brother has risen; David, the eternal King of Israel. Achikam is a brother to all of us, he rose above the everyday drudgery of life, to give his life for his people, for his land, for his G-d. David exemplified the bravery of his namesake.

May their lives and their memories be a blessing upon us all; may we learn from their lives and continue on the path that they laid out before us.


--David Wilder is spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Soldier's Run

Elie's coming home today for the weekend. He is currently on a base along the northern coast of Israel taking a two-day course on the human side of being a commander. Israeli commanders have two main responsibilities. They are the experts among their men when it comes to tactics, munitions, and actions. They lead in a way that few (or no) armies in the world do. Israeli commanders say to their men, "Follow me."

They decide so many things, lead so many things, do many things. The large machine gun on top of the armored personnel carrier that Elie has learned to drive can only be fired by a commanding officer. He, and he alone, is responsible for knowing how to install it, how to take it apart, clean it, load it, shoot it. The commanding officer is responsible for helping to guide the driver, and so much more. These are the things that Elie is learning.

Beyond that, Elie is now learning the issues related to human relations. He is learning how to command men, even under stress. To accomplish this more human task, the army takes the course away from the base in the south, to a more relaxed setting. Catered meals, nicer rooms, easier schedule.

Elie called me early this morning to tell me what time he was coming home today and then he told me that they took the soldiers for a long run today. It's important to keep them in shape, even when they are off base. They told them to dress in sports clothes and sneakers and took them on a run. They ran for a while - till they got to the beach, and then they ran on the sand beside the waves.

I thought of Aliza playing not too far from that beach a few short weeks ago, and how I'd missed Elie. It feels like a wrong has been righted; that Elie got his chance by the waves. I don't have a picture of him running, as I do of his sister, but I can close my eyes and see a whole unit of strong, young men, running along the beach's edge. This is why I wanted to come to Israel to live here, I think to myself. It's all there in the thought of Elie running on the beach in the early morning hours before going back to base, getting dressed in uniform, and continuing his lessons in being a soldier of Israel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Missing...

As much as I've tried to learn to cope with missing Elie on a day-to-day basis, I realize that there are levels of missing that are weaved into our family now. Elie called me last week when he had a break between the training course and dinner. He didn't really have anything particular to say - maybe he was just missing us. We talked about nothing in particular and I understood that he just needed to reach out.

He's done this a few times and I've worried that he sounded a little down or lonely. This time, he didn't sound upset in any way, just that he felt like talking to "home." It was a nice conversation, relaxed, easy and it accomplished its goal, making both of us feel a little more connected.

I asked him how things are going and he told me that he and the other members of the course had eaten the marble cake I'd sent along, and it was good. Elie even sounded a bit surprised. So far, he's taken brownies and cookies - so the marble cake was a consolation prize when I didn't have any time to send something else.

So I asked him if he wanted me to send him some more, and...surprisingly...he said yes. That meant another round of baking, which I did the next day. More marble cake, brownies and cookies, and then I shipped off two large canisters of homemade stuff along with the requisite snacks in a box with his name, army number, course name, base, etc. all marked clearly.

Elie asked me to send him tuna as well. The last time he was home, Elie explained that he'd learned that in the moments after you exercise, your body craves nourishment and is ready to absorb food. What food you give your body at that time, therefore, is especially important. So, protein, like tuna (and in olive oil or canola oil, even more so), was what he wanted (and what he got). Despite the fact that we discussed his snack situation, the call wasn't about food. It was about his feeling a little distant and using that time to close the gap.

This week, Elie's brother got his driver's license. Shmulik looks up to Elie in many ways and believes Elie is a good driver. Elie passed his driver's test the first time (when the vast majority of kids in Israel do not). It's actually a good thing, a humbling thing which teenagers need, to fail once. To realize it is something you have to work for, not something you automatically get. Both Elie's older sister and his brother didn't pass the first time, so this test was very important and the buildup to it made him more nervous.

For, Shmulik passing this test was a major moment in his life. To share his relief and happiness with his brother, he had to wait until a time we thought we could reach him, and then he called. This was another moment in our family life that Elie missed, and in which we missed him but the call helped and they spoke in rapid fire Hebrew about cars and driving and the test. It was all so ordinary. Normally, it would have taken place in Elie's room or Shmuli's room with one sitting on a bed tapping away on a computer, while the other stood nearby. But Elie's not here and the news couldn't wait, so it took place long distance by phone. The event shared and the missing avoided because we were able to reach Elie.

And finally, I was downloading some pictures from my camera to my computer and as my youngest daughter often does, she asked to see them. I opened the directory and she saw the pictures of her dancing by the sea and asked me to print her a copy of one. After I printed it, she asked me to print a picture of Elie as well. As I was setting it up, Elie's youngest brother asked me for one too.

And, in the morning, as she was preparing for school, I noticed that she had put his picture in her backpack to take to school. When Aliza was done carefully putting it in the backpack, she turned and tried to say something in English. She was missing the word.

A few weeks ago, the cellular phone company sent along a set of magnets that contain words and my kids have been playing with them on the refrigerator, leaving notes for people written out by placing individual words in a line. She walked over to the refrigerator and pulled off one small magnet and brought it to me. It was the Hebrew word for "missing." She was missing Elie, she explained sadly.

I asked if she wanted to quickly call him and she said yes. I wasn't sure if we would be able to reach him (and in fact interrupted him during his morning prayers - as a religious soldier, he is given time three times a day to pray), but he quickly agreed to speak to his sister for a brief moment and that seemed to be enough for her.

All in all, it was a strange week, filled with our awareness of missing Elie and knowing that Elie misses us. He called last night to tell me that he'd received the package and I could hear the smile in his voice as he teased me about the contents (and the chocolate treats I put in without telling him). He won't be home for Shabbat this week, but he will have our love (in the cookies, the cakes and the words we speak) and we will have his love (in the picture, the time he took to speak to his sister, the mazel tov he gave his brother and in the smile I could hear but not see).

The army teaches you that there are levels of missing, from the acute, almost painful feeling because a person isn't with you, to the dull ache knowing that another family milestone has gone by that he wasn't here to see. But modern technology also enables you to reach out to your son in the army in a way unheard of a generation ago.

Then, mothers didn't know exactly where their sons were, when they would be home. They couldn't call just to hear their voices, to know they'd received the packages of homemade cakes and all the love they could stuff into the box.

It's another level of blessing - not just to have a son in the army, but to be able to reach out and cover the distance so that the missing doesn't overshadow the importance of what he is doing and the service he is giving to his people and his country.

Starting towards the end of each week, as we leave work, friends, shopping, Israelis often wish each other a good weekend. We do this by wishing them a "Shabbat shalom" - a peaceful sabbath. As the Shabbat approaches and I can feel it beginning to settle over our country, I also feel peace in my family. Elie isn't here, my oldest daughter is spending Shabbat in her own apartment miles away, but there is peace in knowing that we share in missing each other because we are a family.

Next week, God willing, Elie will be home and my daughter will come too. For now, Elie's youngest sister has her picture and Elie's brother has his driving license and Elie's words of praise and I have the memory of Elie's smile in my mind to tuck away and pull into my heart. My son, my Elie, my soldier - shabbat shalom.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Candle and a Wave

Last night we lit the last candle on the menorah. Eight burning lights filling the window with joy and light. Chanukah is one of the easiest holidays to celebrate and one of the most joyous. It is the Festival of Lights. In Israel, it is preceded with great expectations and anticipation. It's a holiday of food - potato pancakes, chocolate coins, and jelly donuts. For young and old, it is a brief vacation, a break from school and, if you are lucky, a break from work. But more importantly, Chanukah is about miracles. It's the miracle of a single small jug of oil meant to last only one day, somehow managing to burn for eight. It is the miracle of a great military victory, when the weak defeated the strong, and it is a miracle of dedication and re-dedication.

Last year, we all stood in my youngest daughter's room and each of my children lit a menorah beside the tall silver menorah that my husband lights each year. We sang and ate together as a family. Some years we took vacations; other times we took day trips hiking or visiting friends.

It's funny how your life can change so much, so quickly. I don't think I realized it last year; that I thought about how different it would be. My oldest daughter is now married; she and her husband lit their menorah in their new home.


Elie is in the army and most nights was able to light a menorah that the army set up for him on base. He was home on Friday and Saturday, lighting here, but he wasn't here last night when we lit the candles and when we sang together.

Today, I took my three youngest children to the Mediterranean. The summer before Elie went into the army, Israel was at war with Lebanon. When it was over, we wanted to do something to help the northern residents and businesses that had suffered so much during the war.

So, we went north, spent money and time. At one point, we drove along the Mediterranean coast and stopped on an almost-deserted stretch of beach.

My youngest daughter was enthralled. "It's huge," she kept saying in awe. "Look!" she commanded me, as if I too had never seen such a sight. Elie took her into the water and she clung to him as he swirled her around and let her feel the power of the waves.

This year, knowing that it has been hard for her to adjust to suddenly having two of her siblings out of her daily life, I asked her what she wanted to do on this last day of the Chanukah vacation. She said she wanted to go to the sea. It's December. It's cold. "We won't go in. I just want to see," she assured me.

So, we took food and towels and spare clothes and water and off we went. No real plan, other than to sit on the beach and enjoy the view. Extra clothes because I couldn't imagine them getting that close and not actually getting wet.

Elie wasn't there this time, but the others were and I decided that it was right to focus on them; to think of the ones who were there with me, and not the ones who were not. My oldest daughter wasn't there. My husband had important work deadlines that couldn't be pushed off. But today was my day; my day with these three who needed and deserved a chance to challenge the waves.

My youngest daughter was filled with joy. She ran and danced beside the water. She bent to pick up shells and carefully washed each of her treasures before adding it to her collection. It was all wonderful for her; all simple and perfect. Her two brothers went deeper into the water and she too moved into the waves, jumping up and down and feeling the pull of the tide.

This is why we live here, in this beautiful land. To be free to do all the normal things that people do in their country - to watch your children marvel at the wonders of this world, to sit and relax and stare at the beautiful waves, to be content for this moment. There is time enough to worry about what will come in the future and what will not; time to fear and pray, and time to hope and dream.

But what we sometimes need most of all, is simply time to live, away from thoughts and all other concerns. Today was a day to remember the simplest of things in life - the joy a child can get simply by seeing the power of the waves.

I've spent much of the last few months feeling that a part of me was missing while Elie was away and out of reach.

Today was about remembering that there are forces more powerful than us and we have to learn to live for now. I missed Elie today, missed seeing him swirl his sister in the water and watch him play in the waves.

But the joy in my youngest daughter's heart was mirrored in my heart as well because I am at peace with where Elie is, what he is doing, and how he is feeling.

My youngest daughter was amazed by the power of the waves. "It felt like it was pushing me and pulling me," she told me as she stood wrapped in the towel, finally having accepted it was time to go home.


That's how it has been for me for the last few months - I've been pushed and pulled in many directions because the army is something so much stronger than a mother. The waves are powerful and you can't really fight them; you can't stop them. So all you can really do is accept them as they come and challenge each, overcome each and watch as it hurls forward and then goes back out to sea. The power of each wave is a miracle, an awe inspiring event for a child...and also for an adult.

Each wave brings a sense of wonder. My daughter felt it today as she stood by the water and danced among the waves, and I have felt that wonder as well. There is an acceptance that comes with having a son in the army. You accept that he is okay (because if he wasn't, you'd hear about it). You accept that he's warm and fed and safe. And you accept the miracles that happen in this country every day.

We've lit the last candle for this year, but seeing the waves today was a promise that the miracles continue.
May we always be blessed with miracles and may we all remember to look at the waves with awe.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Departures

This morning I drove Elie to the central bus station in Jerusalem to catch an early bus to Tel Aviv. From there, he will meet his unit and an army bus, and head south to return to base. It's the army's attempt to get everyone there earlier and get more out of the day. Elie could have taken the bus to the bus to the bus, but I decided to drive him in. It gave him 30 minutes more to sleep, 40 minutes less on the bus from Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem, got me to work at least an hour earlier than usual, and gave me 20 minutes alone with him.

The drive was pleasant; we talked more about the course, a little about him, some about his siblings, plans, the weather. Nothing unusual, easy conversation that filled the time and let me listen to his voice and feel that he is ok, better than ok. The Central Bus Station in Jerusalem is a beehive of activity. It's impossible to even drive a car to the front, but long ago I discovered a small road that offers access to the back door of the large building, where many buses enter.

Elie is carrying a large, heavy backpack filled with spare uniforms and the laundry that he washed on Friday, two big canisters of cookies and cake, and more. As I pulled to the side, I noticed that I was one of at least a dozen other parents dropping their sons (and a few daughters) off. All were in uniform; all carried these large backpacks. Different color berets and boots, according to the units they are in. Different color backpacks; some with guns; some not. All were young; all in a rush to get back to where they are supposed to be.

"Bye, Ima," Elie called out as he passed the window with his backpack strapped on. That's all. Too much for a 20-year-old to give his mother a kiss or hug goodbye. It's not the done thing at all, and sure enough, no other boys did either. At this hour and at this location, it is all business, all movement, and no time for sentiment. They all walked into the big building and disappeared. I sat for a second watching other parents drop off their sons, watched the boys walk to the building, pull out their security passes and enter as the parents drove away. It was my turn and I pulled out, leaving behind other parents to take my spot.

For some reason, the sight of all of these young soldiers touched me and my eyes filled with tears as I stopped at the first light, my mind still seeing these soldiers and their backpacks enter the building.

There is no explanation, other than the emotions of a mother. But I long ago accepted that this happens at the strangest times and it is nothing new. One of the first ways some women know they are pregnant is that their emotions go haywire. You cry more easily, feel things more deeply. Even after birth and in the years that follow, it is much the same. You swallow deeply, let the emotions run through you and accept that this is part of being a mother.

I look at Elie and am filled with gratitude to God for who he has become. Each week, I light the Sabbath candles and pray that God watches over Elie this week and in the weeks and months and years to come. I thank God for having seen him through the past week safely and beg Him to remember the boy inside the man, the heart inside the body. I do this with each of my children and now for my new son-in-law as well. It's a little ritual I started long ago and I've almost convinced myself that tragedy will follow if I skip even one week. So there I stand, after I light the candles, and think of each child. Elie with his blue eyes and wicked smile. Elie in the short sleeves while I am freezing with three layers on. Elie with the backpack in the green uniform.

I watched Elie go into the Central Bus Station with so many silly emotions and I know that the tears in my eyes are just something I have to accept. They are tears of pride and fear and happiness and concern and love - all the things I long ago told my mother-in-law I would feel when she asked me how I would feel when my son went off to the army.

I don't have any reason for the tears this morning, other than the greatest, deepest sense of gratitude for who he is, what he is, and where he is. In the past few years, too much politics has been connected with the Israeli army. Much of that stems from a time when the government was allowed to use the army in a way it was never designed to be used, against our own people rather than against our enemies.

This action caused a terrible and deep rift in the hearts and souls of many Israelis and damaged the motivation of thousands of young men. No matter what has happened in the past, and I am not one to forgive the government easily for its many blunders, we need the army to be strong. We are the army and we cannot surrender that to anyone, not even our own government. I believe the strength of Israel comes from this very simple fact. And so, as I watch my son and see how motivated he is to succeed with each challenge the army throws at him, I am left behind to marvel at it all.

Growing up in America, I didn't know a single soldier or family of a soldier. The US army was a distant reality for me. I didn't grow up seeing tanks being moved on the highway or military helicopters flying over head. I never attended a military ceremony. Even the most sensitive and saddest of days, memorial day, was more vacation than commemoration. It took moving to Israel to realize that this is wrong. They, whoever and wherever they are, fight for us and it is for us to remember and honor them.

Elie has grown up with a different sense of army. It is not something distant; some thing with which he has no contact. His teachers were in the army, leaving school here and there to do their reserve duty. Although his father didn't serve in the army (because we moved here when he was beyond an age worth training, so said the army), many of his friends' fathers would do reserve duty. As Elie moved through high school, those who were older entered the army and while he was in the preparatory academy, the friends from the year before would often come back and talk.

Everyone knows someone in the army here; everyone knows someone. So, watching Elie go off, again, reminded me that he is now a part of this army, an integral part of Israel in a way I will never be...but in a way I always wanted my children to be. It was my dream to come to Israel, but it is Elie who has made that dream come true in many ways. This morning, I was just another parent dropping her son off, just another soldier walking with his backpack into the bus station to return to the army. It was all just...just...just so perfectly Israel that my eyes filled with tears and my heart swelled with gratitude.

For all the wrongs here, there are so many rights. What the army has done for my son, done to him, done with him, is so very right. I'll see Elie, God willing, in two weeks, but the image of him walking with so many others will last me so much longer.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Inner Battles

We all have battles we fight within ourselves: battles where the heart fights the mind, the mind fights the heart and the soul wonders which will triumph. Over the course of a lifetime, each wins its fair share, but the true winner is the one who can accept and find peace with whatever decision is taken. The true winner, hopefully, is the soul because it lives between the mind and the heart and seeks peace between them.

Elie has been fighting one of these inner battles, one in which no one else can help him decide. He has to live with his choice, he has to make the decision. We have told him we support him; we love him, but it is for him alone to choose what road he will take or try to make the army let him take. In his heart, he has wanted to join the Medics Course. He has volunteered at the local ambulance squad here in Maaleh Adumim for over 5 years, since the age of 15, when he took his first course.

He's taken other specialized courses, teaching him how to handle a multiple casualty incident (essentially a terrorist attack), and other important lessons for handling a medical crisis. He has saved people lives, an incredible accomplishment for any 20-year-old. He is a natural in a crisis, calm, determined, aware. I've seen it several times - on vacation when we came across a traffic accident and Elie jumped out to help; driving home when he jumped out of the car to help at an accident and in so many other cases. This is Elie's heart.

In his head, Elie knows that the army has given him 8 months of training and won't want to give that up by letting him take the Medics Course. The army wants to take the investment they have made and reap the rewards by having Elie train others. Even more, Elie's commanding officers see something in Elie. They have invested in him, believed in him, and early on treated him as if some day he would join their ranks and be a commander too.

Elie's head has known all along the chances of getting into the Medics Course are slim and would be made even slimmer if he were to successfully complete the Commanders Course. He also knows that if he quit the Commanders Course, there is still no guarantee that he would be accepted, in 3-4 months time, into the next round of Medics Courses.

For weeks now, Elie's heart and head have collided, each claiming victory over the other. Last week was the latest roller coaster. Last Friday, his heart told me he had made his decision and was quitting the Commanders Course to take his chance at joining the Medics Course and I believed him. In the long term, this was probably the best decision - the army Medic Course is intense and you can likely never have too much medical training in life.

Elie sounded torn when he told me this decision, perhaps a little unsure and I wasn't really convinced it was his final decision. Sure enough, on Sunday, his head spoke to me and said he was staying in the Commanders Course. This too is a decision of honor. Elie would make a great commander (he's been practicing on his younger brother and sister for years). He sounded more sure of himself and I began to think this might be the final decision. But wanted to wait until he came home this weekend to be sure.

He arrived home this past Friday - tired and hungry as usual, but more at peace with himself. He is staying in the Commanders Course. Or will remain his commanding officer during the course. This is an intensive period of training for Elie. In the field, Elie will be the one with the knowledge, the one responsible for the actions of his troops. The commanding officer is the expert of the unit. He is responsible for knowing how to get his troops from point to point on a mission (and so this week Elie and his group were given maps and positions and had to maneuver themselves from point to point). I envy my son this closeness with the land of Israel, this time to walk and learn about the terrain and conditions.

Elie told us more about the course and what is expected and I'll write about that as well, but for now, the decision seems most final and Elie is on track to become a commanding officer. For now, he's going to sleep so that he can leave very early tomorrow morning. He's got two boxes of homemade stuff to take along, a little flashlight I bought last week, and whatever he needs for the next two weeks away from home. But the greatest gift of all that he takes with him, is a heart and a mind at peace with the decision he has made.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Roller Coaster Continues

I spoke to Elie on Friday. He had a few minutes before lunch and decided to give me a call. He told me he was probably going to quit the Commander's Course on Sunday. I asked him why and again he said he wanted to take the Medics Course. He just can't seem to let go of that and I don't blame him. It's very much a part of his personality and has been at least for the last 5 years as he has volunteered for the local ambulance squad.

They have already promised him that after the army, they will send him to a course to become an ambulance driver, but the army's Medics Course is known to be intensive and top-notch. Elie wants it and knows that if he finishes the Commanders Course, the army will never let him throw away 12 months of training (8 months in his current unit plus 4 months to be a commander of a similar specialized unit).

"Have you spoken to Or about this?" I asked Elie.

"Yes. He told me that if it doesn't work out, he'll see me back here in 4 months." That is as close to a blessing as Elie can get from his two commanding officers. Now Elie has to reconcile his need to be a medic, with the negative feeling of quitting something. He is not a quitter by nature and this comes hard for him.

I can hear him agonizing over the decision and I can't help him. He has to decide and he has to live with his decision. He has to stay in the south and work hard to become a commander, or he has to quit, be sent up north, train with his unit (those that are not in specialized courses) and wait until the next round, when he will have to fight again to either get into the Medics course against all odds for someone in his type of unit, or give up and go back south for the Commanders course...again.

He sounds a little depressed and unsure. I called him back a few minutes before the Sabbath set in. There are sometimes words that a mother can say that need to be said, and yet they won't help.

I love you, Elie. I am very proud of you, no matter what you decide to do. I can't give you any advice. It's a decision you have to make and only you can make it. Life is full of decisions, full of divides in the road. You choose one and follow and hope it takes you where you want it to. And, if it doesn't, you do the best you can, until the next fork in the road.

It's hard being a mother when your son is far away, sounding a bit sad and lonely. It's hard not knowing the future and what advice to give. And sometimes, it's just hard to know that he's grown up and a hug and kiss won't make everything all better anymore.

I don't know if he will really quit on Sunday. The worst part, I think, is that Elie doesn't know either and this is unusual for Elie. So the roller coaster continues.

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