End of an Era

The cat’s condition worsened this week, not dramatically, but in tiny ways that only we would notice. His movements were even slower and more tentative. He stopped coming in to sit on me while I worked at the computer. He ate, but the dent he made in his food was almost imperceptible. On Wednesday, I was adamant that the time to put him down had arrived, but Mike was unconvinced, so we compromised by taking Kittyboy to the vet for an evaluation. Then we could decide.

The tech put him on the scale. “Five pounds, ten ounces,” she announced, and I cursed out loud, something I try not to do in front of strangers. He’d lost almost half his body weight. The vet said yes, the end was close. Maybe a little pain medication would help him feel more like eating. Maybe he’d go for the prescription canned food. Maybe this is just prolonging the inevitable, I said, but Mike wanted to try it.

Lest I seem cold-hearted, here’s my thinking about euthanizing a pet. If an animal in the wild were in this weakened state, nature would have ended his life months ago. Since we have chosen to bring certain animals into our homes, made them dependent on us for food, and removed most of the “wild” from their lives, we cannot then fall back on the argument about letting nature take its course when they are dying. Nature is no longer part of this equation. As a pet owner, it is now my duty to stop their suffering when they’ve reached a hopeless condition. To allow a cat with congestive heart failure to die of his disease doesn’t mean he’d go peacefully in his sleep. It ends with respiratory distress — slow suffocation — and there’s no guarantee that we’d be at home or awake to help him when it was happening. With that possibility on the near horizon, I would rather risk putting him down a little too soon than be even a minute too late.

This is a difficult thing to argue about. There’s me, horrified at the possibility that we’ll wait too long and he’ll have a terrible end, so let’s do it soon. Then there’s Mike, who sees that Kittyboy still has a little bit of oomph left and doesn’t want to cut him off prematurely. Mike wants to come to a decision based on his own gut feeling, which I say is an unreliable indicator of an animal’s physical condition. I want to sneak the cat off to the vet’s office while Mike’s out, but this would be crossing a line in our relationship and I can’t bring myself to do it, no matter how right I think I am.

On Wednesday afternoon, we give the Kittyboy the new wet food, a substance that he has never in his life been willing to eat, and he goes for it a tablespoon at a time. That night, we dose him with a teeny amount of pain medication, which will make him sleep more (as if that’s possible). Thursday, he continues to eat the wet food, but even after the medication should have cleared his system, he’s sluggish and uncoordinated so we don’t give him a second dose.

On Friday morning, the kitty walks unsteadily down the hall into the bathroom and then meows, a sound usually reserved for when he wants to be snuggled or someone is standing on his tail. He can’t figure out how to turn around. I pick him up and take him into the bedroom. Later, as he’s coming back down the hall, it happens again: he can’t go any further and meows to be carried. He lies down under the coffee table, where he spends most of his days now. “It’s time,” I say. It is, Mike agrees.

I make the appointment for late in the afternoon, reasoning that if we’re going to ruin the day with the death of a beloved pet, we should ruin as little of it as possible. This logic turns out to be flawed, as the anticipatory grief makes us feel rotten all day anyway and the waiting is miserable. As I drive home from sitting with my hospice patient (who is suddenly declining as well), I pray: Please let him have died on his own, please… But no, there he is under the coffee table. “You’re such a jerk,” I say, lying down on the floor next to him and rubbing his chin. “You couldn’t have done this one little thing for me?” Whenever he finds me horizontal, he always climbs up on my chest to stick his whiskers up my nose, but not today. He leans his head against my side. He does not purr.

The boys say their goodbyes at home and opt out of the trip to the vet. Our daughter goes with us to the appointment, holding the Kittyboy in her lap in the car. While we wait for the vet, he struggles to find a comfortable position on the tile floor so we put down a towel, and he sits in the corner with his face to the wall. The ladies who work in the vet’s office are so kind to us, it’s almost unbearable. They will make a little plaster paw-print for us with his name on it. Afterward. I am so antsy that I straighten all the photos on the walls twice. If we don’t get out of here soon, I may start reorganizing the cabinets.

Then the moment arrives. The tech places a catheter in Kittboy’s front leg so there won’t be any chance of “missing” when injecting the medication. The vet comes in and we give her the go-ahead. Kittboy relaxes, and just that fast, we feel him leave. No matter how many times I have watched a pet pass on, it doesn’t get easier with practice. The hardest part of loving an animal is always at the end. This is the price we pay to love anything, I think.


We buried him in the back yard. We ate the comfort food Mike had wisely purchased ahead of time. I drank a little more wine than was prudent, and we went to bed early because our eyes felt like they’d been sanded from all the crying. This morning, I miss him but am also relieved. I hadn’t realized how chronic the worry had become and how much energy it was taking, trying to figure out the right thing to do. He was a very good Kittyboy. A weird one, which is why we took so many pictures of him, but a good boy. And now he’s been released.

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Published in: on August 11, 2012 at 10:36 am  Comments (19)  
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Feline Assisted Living

Asleep on his head last December

Back in February, I took the cat to the vet because he was looking a little scrawny. Turns out, he had lost 2-1/2 pounds, which doesn’t sound like a lot except that he was only a 10-pounder in his prime. After several tests, the diagnosis was congestive heart failure. It’s difficult to eat when your heart has to work so hard with every activity, the vet said, explaining the 25% weight loss. His kidneys are shrinking, too, she said, but his heart would likely give out first.

She prescribed Lasix to help reduce the fluid in his system but said to discontinue it if he had any adverse reaction. By adverse, she must have meant that within a few hours of his first dose, he would collapse while walking across the room. When he was able to stand again, he crawled under the couch like he was waiting to die and stayed there for almost 24 hours until the medication cleared his system. No more Lasix for you, buddy, I said. Looks like we’ll just wait this out. Kitty hospice, I called it.

Getting a drink the hard way, shortly after his diagnosis.

That was five months ago and the cat’s still here, so now we call it kitty assisted living instead. I tried changing his food to see if he’d put back a little weight, but he rejected the good stuff and went on a hunger strike that he could ill-afford until I gave him his old brand back. I cooked ground turkey for him, which went over well for awhile, then didn’t. I called my daughter at college with periodic reports of his decline until she finally told me not to call about the cat again until he had actually gone to Kitty Heaven. All this interim news was too upsetting.

He accidentally stepped in his food dish, then couldn’t figure out how to get his foot out, so he finished the meal like that.

He used to go out in the back yard, but the summer heat is hard on his heart, which even a Cat of Very Little Brain seems to understand. Now he sleeps most of the day away in the TV room, stretched out across the rug in a vulnerable and very uncatlike manner. In the evening, he climbs up on the couch with me and stands on my chest, obscuring my view while sticking his whiskers up my nose and staring at me with one eye.

Pirate eye

Pirate Eye, we call it. His left pupil doesn’t constrict properly, and sometimes he has to close it to keep the light out. Because of this, his depth perception is crap and the only way he can find the water in his bowl is by sticking his paw into the water while he drinks. The wet paw can be dealt with, he’s found, by using the clothing of the nearest human as a towel.

As sometimes happens with little old men, his appearance has gone to hell. He is so thin that his hipbones show when he walks, and the vertebrae in his back feel like beads in a necklace. Normal kitty bathing is too exhausting, so he’s given it up and looks   chronically disheveled, like he might have accidentally taken a ride in the dryer. If there is goop in the corner of his eyes, it stays there until I wipe it out with a damp paper towel. When he goes into his box, he gets cat litter stuck between his toes and leaves a trail of it across the house as he walks. He simply can’t be bothered anymore.

Not posing for the photo. Just stuck.

He used to be able to move from one room to the next without stopping, but now he pauses mid-stride and holds it for a minute or two, like he’s playing a game of freeze tag. It could be that he needs to rest because his heart is working so hard, or that the scar tissue in his back leg gets stiff and doesn’t let him move as smoothly as he’d like. Or it could be that, like some people we know, he has simply forgotten what he came into this room for.

The few rules we used to have for felines have been suspended for the duration. Sometimes he climbs up on the table during meals and instead of putting him back on the floor as we have done for the past 15 years, we try to tempt him with a little of our dinner. It is gross and unsanitary and I’m completely okay with it. Even Mike, who has always been more squeamish about pet hair in his meals, has come to realize that these are exceptional circumstances. The rest of you should probably decline our dinner invitations until the cat dies.

Which I beg him to do at least once a day. Do not leave me hostile comments about this. I do it very politely. You could just go to sleep and stay that way, I tell him while I scratch his chin. Please don’t make me have to take you to the vet. His life is definitely not what it used to be. He’s always been a little mentally off, and now he’s a physical wreck, too. I worry that he might be suffering without our knowing it, or that it’ll be ugly at the end if I wait too long. But he’s still eating (some) and drinking (with his paw in the dish), and he follows me around every morning until I lie down and snuggle with him. If you see the light, go ahead and go, I say encouragingly, gently stroking his bony back. Kittyboy just stares at me and closes one eye.

Published in: on July 17, 2012 at 10:27 am  Comments (22)  
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Life Among the Dead

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. My work on the book — which had hit such a terrible, sloggy place that I had to bribe myself with chocolate just to get an hour’s writing done every couple of days — finally took off when I realized what would turn this book from a collection of facts into a story with humanity. It needed this young soldier and 31 others like him.

In the 1940s, the town of Granville, New York, had a population of about 6,000 people. During the 3-1/2 years of U.S. involvement in World War II, 770 of Granville’s young people went into military service. Thirty-two of them didn’t make it home alive. They had all attended the same high school, and fifteen of them belonged to the same church. The pain of their loss was felt, not only by their families, but by the entire community.

Now nearly 70 years have passed, and I am trying to bring them back.

In the first draft of the book, they were just a list of 32 names. That’s all the information I had. Today, thanks to people in Granville who have shared what they know, combined with my brother Dan’s tenacious research, these young men have their stories again. It has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done — and the most emotionally draining.

I have spent the past few weeks gleaning dozens of obituaries, emails, and newspaper articles for details about each soldier and sailor. I know which street they lived on, how many brothers and sisters loved them, and if they played high school football. I know who died in training, on leave, in combat — and where. Some left behind young wives and had babies who would never know them. I can tell you what military awards they received, how long they served, and how many were killed  between D-Day and V-J Day. Most never saw their 25th birthdays.

It is painful to reanimate the dead, only to end by imagining what their mothers must have felt when the awful telegram arrived. It weighs more than I expected it to, and I’ve had to devise some strategies for shaking it off. I take walks and go swimming even when I don’t want to. I turn on some music to use the other side of my brain. I play with the dogs, I hardly listen to the news anymore, and when a documentary about the bombing of Germany comes on TV, I change the channel. Still, when I learned yesterday that a young Granville soldier had died of his wounds in an overcrowded POW camp, I felt the impact of it anyway, 67 years late.

I think about them all the time now, those boys who took on Hitler and Hirohito. I hope I can do them justice.

Getting Out

I think too much. I especially think too much when I’m trapped on that silly treadmill or elliptical machine at the Y. And as I watch the other people around me, huffing and puffing their way to nowhere, here’s what I’m thinking about.

I live in a place where the sun shines 300 days a year. This is February and it’s 65 degrees outside, so why are we under these fluorescent lights? And after half an hour, where will we be? Exactly where we started, like rats on a wheel.

I can’t stand it. I need to do my sweating outside.

Last Sunday, Mike and I took the dogs for a hike in the Tucson Mountains, west of the city. The view was much better than inside the gym. Look at that sky. That’s our normal shade of blue.

Saguaro cactus

This is a saguaro, the iconic cactus of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. (Pronounce it “sah-wah-roe” — the g is silent.) The saguaro doesn’t grow in Albuquerque, nor will you find any in Texas. And that t-shirt your sister sent you from Las Vegas with the saguaros on it? Bogus. They’re unique to this region. Most of the time, they grow straight, like the ones in the background of this photo. This cactus took a weird turn. They’re filled with water, so a mature, well hydrated saguaro can weigh a couple tons. Several years back, some doofus was shooting at one, and it fell and killed him. Cactus revenge is rough.

Saguaro spines

Up close, they look like this. Some saguaros can live to be 150-200 years old.

Ribs of a dead saguaro

When they die, their ribs show and they’re still beautiful. On a windy day, the ribs rattle against each other and the sound is mesmerizing.

Our dogs have gotten pretty savvy about staying away from the larger prickly things when we hike. But the cholla (“choy-ya”) was everywhere on this trail. You really have to go out of your way to have a bad encounter with, say, a barrel cactus because it keeps to itself and minds its own business unless you fall into it.

Barrel cactus, close-up

Cholla, on the other hand, is a hitchhiker, with segmented joints that break off easily and cling to your clothing and shoes. It’s evolutionary, a way for the plant to spread itself around without having to do any work. Bits of cholla lurk along the trail like little landmines, so a dog doesn’t usually notice them until it’s too late. And what does a dog do with something painful stuck in her paw? She bites it. Now it’s in her paw and in her mouth. If the human tries to help with bare hands, then everyone gets stuck, so we always carry a comb to flick the spines out without having to touch them.


Hiking, particularly in the desert, demands a person’s full attention. It’s too cold for rattlesnakes right now, but we’ve come across several of them at warmer times of year. My reaction to a rattler is primitive and instantaneous, the closest I ever come to flying under my own power. The rattle sounds like this. (By the way, the person who took that video was a nut. Rattlesnakes have a striking range of one-third to one-half of their body length.) Mike will get up close and personal with one, but I don’t have much to say to a rattler except good-bye.

When we have our dogs with us, particularly the young one who is too curious for her own good, I’m also on the lookout for javelinas (“hah-veh-lee-nahs”).

Javelinas are not pigs.

Mike thinks I’m overly concerned, but dogs and coyotes are the javelina’s natural enemies. Javelinas have razor-sharp tusks, and a mother will not hesitate to use them to protect her young. They’re generally nocturnal, but that’s a guideline, not a rule. I met a herd of javelinas once during daylight hours and backtracked immediately to give them plenty of room. I’m on their turf, after all.

It’s not all stickery, scary stuff out here.

Rocks need love, too.

Hole in saguaro -- probably a bird has nested here.

Barrel cactus fruit.

Even dead vegetation can be beautiful.

For the first time in history, most of the world’s humans live in cities. Now that we’ve gotten so removed from the natural world, people prefer staying inside their cars and buildings because everything “out there” seems too scary. I have learned to love the desert, even the parts I have to be cautious about. I have come to appreciate the tenacity of the plants and animals that can survive here. I like the practice of paying attention to what’s around me, rather than expecting to be insulated from discomfort and shocked when it occurs. Sometimes it rains and we get wet. Or the trail is steeper than we expected. Nature makes no promises. Hiking through the desert is not safe and predictable like a treadmill — but at least I know I’ve been somewhere when I’m done.

Published in: on February 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm  Comments (7)  

Rotating the Cat

We are on our last cat. I like felines just fine. But several years ago, after Kittyboy was already part of the household, one of our kids developed an allergy to cat dander that sends him straight to the box of Claritin as soon as he walks into our house. Even then, he can’t stay long before his eyes start to itch. The cat is too old and weird for us to find him another home now, but since I’d like our son to be able to visit for longer than an hour, we won’t be replacing Kittyboy when he moves on to cat heaven. He’s the end of our feline line.

Kittyboy followed me home in 1997. He’s always been a little odd, even by cat standards. He’s uncoordinated and one of his eyes dilates independently of the other, probably due to some neurological damage before he arrived here. He sometimes sits in the middle of the room with his front paws crossed and falls over for no apparent reason. His leaps to reach his food dish on top of the washing machine are frequently unsuccessful, despite the fact that I’ve arranged a step in front of the machine for easier access. He may not have figured out what the step is for. He’s not very bright.

Kittyboy was terribly anti-social when he was young. He didn’t snuggle, resisted being held (as many young cats do), and would only sleep on our eldest son’s bed. He fought with the neighborhood cats, to the benefit of no one except the vet who earned a lot of money from patching up my little loser. Dogs didn’t scare this kitty, either. Unlike cats with good sense, he would walk toward any dog he didn’t know, regardless of its size, with an expression like Dirty Harry. Make my day.

As he’s gotten older, some things have changed. Because he’s even less agile than he used to be, I only let him outside a few times a week and never at night. He rarely leaves the yard but is content to scratch his claws on one of the trees before finding a sunny spot to take a nap. He’s even spacier than when he was young and will walk into a room and stop mid-stride where he will stay poised until something clicks in his tiny head. If he could talk, he’d be asking the same question we all ask as we age: “What did I come in here for?”

At this stage, Kittyboy lives for two things: warmth and comfort, a big change from his younger, more aloof personality. He isn’t allowed to sleep in our room because he likes to purr directly into my face with his whiskers up my nose. This is not as cute as it sounds, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. So the next best thing is to guilt me into snuggling first thing in the morning. If I’m already up, he will try to herd me back into bed with the same plaintive meow that convinced me to take him home 14 years ago. Sometimes it works, although he pretends not to understand English when I tell him I only have a few minutes. If he finds me at the computer, he will claw his way into my lap and wedge himself between my body and the desk as I type, soaking up warmth. I do not mistake this behavior for affection. I’m just his hot water bottle.

This morning, he got into my bed and fell asleep standing on his head. When it was time to make the bed, I picked him up, still asleep, and moved him into the guest room. That’s his favorite room in the wintertime because the sun shines onto the bed in there most of the day. But of course, as the sun moves across the sky, so does the warm spot.

So several times a day, I shift the kitty across the bed so he’ll always be in the sunny spot. Getting old should have some perks, shouldn’t it? Even for a cat.

If I’m in the laundry room when he wants to eat, I pick him up and put him in front of his food so he doesn’t have to jump. I don’t let the dogs play with him anymore because he clearly no longer enjoys it, and every couple weeks, I inject him with subcutaneous fluids to help his sluggish kidneys. We look the other way now if he gets on the table while we’re eating unless he’s standing in our food. And I rotate him around the sunny spot on the bed every day. I was telling a friend about all this at dinner recently, a little embarrassed that these accommodations might strike someone else as silly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, looking at my husband. “If you’ll do that much for a cat, it sure bodes well for Mike as he gets older, doesn’t it?”

Published in: on December 6, 2011 at 3:20 pm  Comments (3)  

Three Years

The date might seem a little off. My mother died on December 2, 2008, and according to the calendar, this post is premature. But her passing took us all by surprise the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, so today feels like the day even though the calendar says it’s not. The heart must keep its own anniversaries.

Aggie, ca. 1943

After three years, the biggest chunks of grief have resolved as much as they’re likely to. I can drive along the street where she lived without thinking I should stop in to visit. Big band music doesn’t make me cry anymore. I get nostalgic, but not heartbroken, at the sight of flowers like the ones she used to grow on the farm. I no longer believe I will feel better if I move to another house or get a career or have a little plastic surgery, even though I seriously considered all of them in that first year or two after she died. When the brain fog lifted a bit, it became clear that no matter where I live or what big changes I make, nothing can fill the hole her absence has left. Lacking any choice in the matter, I accept this. Resignation will have to substitute for resolution.

Aggie & Fred, 1947

I have given up wishing my mother’s life had been different. Mostly. It’s a hard habit to break, even though it’s an obvious waste of time. Tragedy makes more interesting storytelling, and many aspects of Mom’s existence truly were harder than she deserved, but I’m starting to see that portraying her as a victim does her an injustice. No matter what was going on, she always managed to carve out a corner where she could do what she enjoyed in the company of people who loved her. I don’t know if she ever expected to be happy, but maybe that corner was enough.

Aggie, early 1950s

I feel a bit untethered without her, which you could take to mean either “without anchor” or “free,” and both would be true. As in, “Huh. Nobody needs me.” Or, “Yay! Nobody needs me.” My phone is quieter than when Mom was alive and couldn’t remember something I’d just told her an hour earlier. I am not on a first-name basis with her pharmacist, dentist, or physician  anymore. I don’t do her shopping, manage her finances, arrange her appointments, provide her transportation, pay her bills, or dose her medications. These days, I’m only responsible for my own household. For months after she died, I didn’t know what to do with all the extra time. Now I write a blog and am working on a book. I’m a hospice volunteer, a job that feels more valuable than anything I could get paid to do. When my friends want to see me, I have time. One of these days, I’ll be taking care of someone again. This is just a breather between gigs.

Aggie & Michelle, Easter 1968


Even though I know I should keep moving forward, I call Mom back now and then. I take her to Granville and make her live in a drafty farmhouse with no heat upstairs. She is very patient and allows me to dress her in faux Chanel suits and pillbox hats like a 1960s paper doll. If I listen carefully, I can hear her singing at the piano or swearing at a painting she’s working on because the Virgin Mary’s hands don’t look right. We go to the library or visit her friends. Sometimes I just lie on her bed and talk to her. She doesn’t stay long, though. She doesn’t belong here anymore. Besides, she hates to see me cry.

“Tomorrow will be a better day,” she promises before she goes.

Published in: on November 29, 2011 at 6:43 pm  Comments (7)  

Soundtrack Near the End

In 1994, while I was sitting with my first hospice patient as he died, I learned that death in the real world can be very different from the way we’ve come to expect it in movies. If it happens at home, it’s much quieter. No swell of music precedes the crucial moment and there are usually no profound last words. The final breath doesn’t announce itself dramatically and may go unnoticed until you realize that the next one isn’t coming. In the moments or days before that, dying just makes you wait.

The other day, I sat with an elderly gentleman named “Bill” (not his real name) whose family members needed a few hours off, because waiting can be so exhausting. These requests always come at the last minute since dying obviously cannot be scheduled, so this may be the first time I’m meeting the person. The man’s daughter “Joan” (not her real name either) led me to her father’s room, where she introduced us. He fell asleep a few minutes later. She told me he’d had periods of restlessness the day before, feeling anxious because he wasn’t ready to go.

“Where does he think he’s going?” I asked. It’s no good assuring someone about heaven or reincarnation or a long rest if that doesn’t fit with what he believes. Joan said she didn’t think he’d worked that part out yet.

After she left, I sat knitting miles of baby blanket while the oxygen tank droned and gurgled. The radio was tuned to Old People Music — or maybe it’s not that old, since I knew most of the words. I sang along with Patsy Kline, Johnny Mathis, and Bing Crosby for nearly two hours, thinking of my mom who listened to all of them on the radio when I was little. Then Bill woke up.

“I haven’t been able to talk to your mother,” he complained. “I don’t know why she’s been gone so long.”

There is no point in bothering the dying with the pesky details of reality. If he thought his wife was still alive and I was one of his daughters, that was fine. “Where do you think she went?” I asked.

“I don’t know but I left a letter over there for her to mail. I guess she took it.” Given that he wasn’t certain where he was headed, it made perfect sense that he wasn’t sure of her whereabouts either. A few minutes later, he remembered that we had just met and he asked what my “association” was.

“You mean, what’s my job? I’m a volunteer. I came to sit with you for a few hours so you won’t be alone.”

He considered this notion and declared it silly. Yes, some people think so, I told him.

He asked where I lived and who I lived with. When I told him the ages of our kids, he reached for my face. “I can’t see very well. I thought you were younger. You know, I was 21 once.”

“Were you married by then?” He thought so. “So you got married in the late 30s, right?” Something like that.

The person who is actively dying may also travel back and forth between here and there, sometimes seeing things the rest of us cannot.

Bill looked off into the distance. “I’m really bored. Most of the time, all I can see is sky. But what are those shapes over there?”

I looked where he was pointing but saw nothing. “What do they look like?” I asked.

“They look like balls and some other toys. I think they’re part of the contour of the landscape,” he said.

I agreed even though I had no idea what he was talking about, and then remembered a family story about my Uncle Frank. My father’s brother always liked a beer or six. One night, when he was drinking with some friends, his speech became a little slurred and he said something that sounded like mumblemumblemumblefrazzlerattzen. 

One of the younger men, trying to humor the old guy, said, “That’s right, Frank.”

My uncle sat up straight and sober, looked the young man in the eye and said, “What’s the matter with you? I didn’t say a goddamn thing. Are you gonna be a phony all your life?” I considered the possibility that Bill was pulling an Uncle Frank on me and that his next words would be, “What’s the matter with you? There’s nothing there. Are you gonna be a phony all your life?”

Instead, he said, “I don’t think I should have come on this vacation. We’ve been going and going and now I’m so tired, all I want to do is take a nap.”

“I bet,” I agreed and meant it.

Published in: on August 10, 2011 at 9:29 am  Comments (4)  

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