The Most Unwelcome News of All
The brutal trauma that is abruptly thrust onto a parent when a child dies is not something that can be conveniently cast aside forever. Regardless of what attempts are made, a void that had not existed before floods in with the force and devastation of a tsunami destroying everything up to the moment they passed away and leaving nothing in its place. It is a void that expands in the blink of an eye where nothing is left untouched. All that was once deemed special ceases to hold value and meaning.
One’s life and how and why it was shaped, all that has occurred to that point, the memories, thoughts, plans, hopes, dreams, even likes and dislikes, no longer matter. Everything disintegrates: suddenly reduced to emptiness. You are aware that those you love most are nearby, trying to connect, but you have become two coexisting realities, each the opposite of the other, both contradictory yet somehow without conflict. You the person and your emotions have detached from each other and become separate entities. You perceive two coexisting worlds.
The first reality is that one day you have transitioned from being occupied with your life to, without warning, that life ending abruptly. Even though it does not register as fact, your child is gone from your life. No more talks, sharing ideas, planning, complaining, hugs, arguments, disagreements, and working together on projects could ever take place from that point on. You had been there for them for more than thirty years: supporting, helping, advising, encouraging, requesting favours, and rectifying problems, then suddenly all that stops. How does one suddenly stop doing such things?
The second reality is that a deep, dark chasm has opened beneath everything you had experienced with your son and leaves you with nothing except an endless series of desperate attempts to try to recall everything related to the life of your son – his reality. Never once can you allow yourself to acknowledge that his life can no longer be felt. To do so would amount to the demise of your own life as well.
I still recall the vivid dream that woke me from my sleep three days before the news of his death. I watched as he drove his panel van down the driveway of my home, not realising during the dream or later while awake that he had already taken his life a few days earlier. The morning gave rise to an uneasy fear that something was not right. For the next three days, I repeatedly stood at the beginning of the driveway expecting him to turn up at any moment. It never happened. Several phone calls went unanswered. No-one had seen him.
Six months earlier we had a disagreement, which led to his staying away in Geraldton. I had asked him to apologise to Stephanie for the aggravated way he had spoken to her. He refused and left saying he had done nothing wrong. The disagreement was not harsh in any way, definitely no more than what had occurred in the past and I knew from experience to give him time to calm down. He was always stubborn about some matters and nothing could sway him until he was ready to talk. Naturally, I had received news of what he was doing and even spoke to him on the phone several times. My assumption was that when he was ready, he would come back as he always had in the past, apologise (or not), and life would go on as though nothing had happened.
The way I received the news of his death was improper. Needlessly and cruelly delivered by someone who presumed the right to telephone out of the blue, even before the police had made contact. The message was relayed in a matter of fact, careless manner even though the individual concerned was once a friend of both my son and I. There was no consolation or condolences. He didn’t even attend the funeral. He seemed to relish playing the role of policeman once again.
This horrible, debilitating phone call came through late morning on the 21st of May 2007. He had died about one week before he was found in his VW van the previous day, which was locked inside a large shed where he lived. I recall nothing from that point on until Stephanie arrived home several hours later. She found me crouched on the dining room floor oblivious to all that was around me.
Forget everything you think you know about grief. The expectations and norms of society cease to apply when it is your child that dies. The foundation of your life has been demolished and now you are standing in an alien, unrecognisable place. Its dark dimensions expand endlessly in all directions. No memory from the past is recognisable; no part can be reached as either it has been pushed back into the recesses of your mind or it appears and disappears before you can focus on it.
It is impossible to know what is real, what is not, where to go or not to go, who actually cares or is indifferent to what has transpired. Time and space is suspended and becomes the embodiment of what it means to be truly isolated and alone. There is no awareness of any other living being. One has been sent to another planet in another galaxy where no obvious path back to anything remotely familiar can be found.
This is the place you end up in when your child dies. It is desolate. Inside, you too are desolate. You can hear people saying things like, “I can’t imagine” or “I don’t know what to say” or “this is my worst nightmare”. Others turn silent and display awkwardness and either shut down further talk or make excuses to be somewhere else. You do not know what you have said – you hear their words, but not your own. In those moments you realise that your life is now unrecognisable, not just to them, but to yourself.
His name is Justin. Justin David Quinton, my first born son. I refuse to refer to him in the past tense. He was 34 years old at the time he took his own life. He will be 48 years old on the 24th of July 2020.
The Morgue and the Funeral
The morgue was the next most horrific and unsettling part of the entire week. On returning to Perth I immediately attempted to see him. He had been taken to the mortuary at Sir Gardner hospital. I struggled for several days to receive permission to see him. The mortician was adamant that he did not want me to see the state he was in as he had been sitting in the car seat for almost a week and had become unrecognisable. At the time, it had been a hot week and the shed had magnified the interior temperature of the van.
I am unsure what changed his mind, but the mortician arranged a day to meet him at the hospital. The ride out there was a blur, as was the walk through several corridors to where he had been laid out. I was told I could not go into the room, only look through a large glass window. As I stood in front of the window, a blind was raised to reveal a reddish orange heavy plastic body bag stretched out full length along a metal table several feet inside the room. Nothing else was in the room. This was as close as I was allowed to be with him. All I could do was stand at the window with tears streaming down my face. I was incapable of saying anything.
I did not organise the funeral. The burden of dealing with the details was too much to bear. My wife and Peter L graciously took on this difficult task. The day of the funeral took away none of the grief – it was taken over by a debilitating sense of unexplained loss that made no sense. The emptiness that poured into my soul as I watched my son being lowered into a deep grave cannot be described. The pain is inconsolable. This is the last moment there was any physical connection to the human being that once was my son. My daughter Emma displayed exactly how nasty and disgusting she could possibly be that day when she violently pushed me out of the way as I attempted to console her and my other children. In hindsight, I realised that none of them made any effort to console me that day. From that point on, the added trauma of what these people did at the funeral has since made it impossible to reconcile their actions with the notion of caring, loving children.
In the eighteen months that followed, life was akin to living in a dense fog. At the time and almost up until recent months, it would not have been possible to explain most of what I did during that interval. Somehow, months and thereafter years disappeared without conscious connection to most of what I was did.
The Trip to Geraldton
Almost immediately after the funeral, pressure was put on me to go to Geraldton as the owner of his rental house wanted everything cleared out straight away. I do not recall his name, I only know that after not seeing Justin for a week he broke the padlock to the workshop adjacent to the house and discovered Justin slumped in the front seat of his van. Justin had been there for almost one week. The man was traumatised and wanted to put the experience behind him as quickly as possible. I had no argument against this need.
The trip to Geraldton added to the stress. The Neon broke down north of Coonabidgee on the Brand Hwy, slightly north of Gingin. The top radiator tank had separated rendering the car immobile. I knew a friend was living near Bindoon around 30 kilometres away. It took around 2 hours to hitchhike to his (Mark’s) house. Mark took me straight to the car and we towed it back to the security of his property. The next day, Mark drove me to Perth and I resumed the journey to Geraldton the following day.
On the way, there were times when I could barely see the road. The fear and uncertainty of what may be waiting in Geraldton and the continuous welling up of tears forced me to pull over several times. Just twenty kilometres south of Eneabba I was pulled over by police for doing a few kilometres over the speed limit. Luckily the officer could see that I was upset and asked what was wrong. I explained as best I could what I knew. The officer called through to the Geraldton police station and verified what I told him. On completing his call, he gently urged me to drive carefully and take my time getting to Geraldton.
I arrived around mid-afternoon and made my way straight to the police station. I was given directions to the house and later met the owner at the gate. On the way, he explained what he knew and suggested where I could setup the van and the belongings I could not take with me. Once I left, he offered to take everything to a place on the block and burn everything.
I entered via the garage with the owner. The first thing that I confronted me was the van. The owner confirmed that was where he found him. He was visibly uncomfortable and wanted to leave. As he did, he said to stay as long as I wanted and to lock the padlock when I was finished. I cannot recall how long I remained, but it must have been several days.
The house section was adjoined to the garage. The first thing that I noticed was how neat and tidy everything had been organised. Nothing was out of place, nothing on the floor, no mess to indicate signs of activity, no dishes in the rack, the cutlery and crockery all put away in their places, the table and sink spotless,– almost as though a very thorough and lengthy clean-up had occurred before preparing the van. The impression however, was that everything had been setup for some time in readiness for the boys, my grandchildren, to stay with him.
I remember thinking at the time that what was evident before me was the depth of Justin’s love for his two boys. His separation from them had been too much to bear and he had gone to great lengths to re-establish them back into his life. There was no way I could accept that he was in a sound state when he took his life and he must have reached a point where he believed that nothing would be right again. To have loved your sons so much that you cannot bear to not have them with you is an unimaginably cruel place to be trapped in. This is why his plaque has the words “A good Dad” embossed on it.
The furniture was positioned exactly to suit the space. The beds were neatly made with doonas and blankets folded at their ends. The clothes in the chests of drawers were carefully folded and stored away. Toys and books were setup around the room and on top of the chests. It was clear that everything had been set up in anticipation for when the boys would visit. It was obvious that the place had been lovingly and fully prepared for the them, not simply cobbled together for a single male to live in. I have no idea whether the boys ever had the opportunity to be there, but there can never be any doubt that it was his foremost plan.
Another thing that stood out was I could not find his wallet. I had given it to him some time back so I knew exactly what it looked like. To this day I do not know what happened to it as he could not have taken it away.
The first night I did not sleep. I imagined noises coming from the garage. Twice I looked into the blackness only to hear nothing. It was not good night. On the second day, I set about putting his possessions in three piles: stuff that would not be kept (to be burnt with the van); stuff for the boys; and various items to keep and take back to Perth. This task was painfully slow and took most of the day. I found the presents and letters and cards I had sent him over the years, all put away in boxes and drawers.
In the garage was a half completed Holden panel van, the back full of parts and piles of panels and mechanical pieces stacked around it. He clearly had grand plans for it as all the parts were well chosen. I could not cope with the idea of finding someplace to transport it to and store it, so without great thought I decided to sell it all or give it away. I contacted some of his friends to find out who would be interested and organised for them to come out and take everything once I had left.
Even though I needed to walk past and around it many times, I could not bring myself to look inside the van on the first day. I could see where Justin had run a hose pipe from the exhaust pipe to a rear quarter window, which had been sealed with cardboard and tape to prevent leaks. This would have taken some time to prepare.
Throughout the second day I had to summon the strength several times to look in the van. I knew he had died in there: it was the last place in which he had breathed. In a strange way I could sense his presence, but at the same time I could not bring myself to connect with the reality of what he had done.
When I finally did open the passenger door of the VW kombi van, I could see shells laid out along the dash top, a note to his ex-partner on the passenger seat (7 pages in total in which it was apparent that as he wrote, the words and lines became increasingly uneven and more difficult to read), cds on the floor and throughout the rear section, the cd album cover for Dark side of the Moon on the passenger seat next to the note, the cd itself was still in the player so I knew it had been the last music he had listened to. The back of the van was piled up with boxes and crates.
The smell was unbearable. It was impossible to remain in the van for more than one minute at a time. This was a problem as it forced me to leave and return to the van many times before I could recover what was important for sorting out later. It turned out that these efforts were important as he had kept most of his group certificates and bank account papers in the van. Without these it would have been impossible to figure out his superannuation contributions and insurance entitlements.
What will never be forgotten was the thick, semi dried, atrophied blood and tissue on the driver’s car seat that had seeped its way down and through the van floor and deposited onto the concrete floor below into a circle 12 to 18 inches in diameter and accumulated at least 1 inch high.
Only recently, almost thirteen years later, am I able to peer through the mental fog to force myself to recall what happened over those disengaged, semi-unconscious years. As each memory emerges, others follow, clearly not forgotten, just put away for when I would be ready to recall them sometime in the future.
The only reality is that you have become your own worst nightmare. It is nothing short of a private hell. The first thought each morning is that you do not want to live as you strive not to wake up and avoid the memory of not seeing your son again. Once awake, you try with the little that is left of your weakened state to not lose your grip on reality and struggle to learn the esoteric rules of this strangely ethereal unfamiliar life. You do this because you cannot accept what has happened and cannot let go of your first born child.
The loneliness quickly becomes a major part of the painful and heartbreaking memories. It is also one of the most dominant. No-one wants to talk about what happened. It is the equivalent of the diseased elephant in the room that never goes away. Awkward silences, uncomfortable pretences that it did not happen or even avoidance for fear it will affect their lives, suggestions it is time to move on and indirect pretences that it is just another part of life to be dealt with and soon to be forgotten. The message is clear: put it away in a cupboard so that you (meaning everyone else) can get on with their lives without being reminded of the horror.
What comes through in its place is that whenever someone makes it clear that they do not want to talk about your child, a profound and debilitating alienation takes control. You must suffer in silence and compliantly honour the enduring taboo that surrounds the word ‘suicide’. Inside however, you want to scream out to everyone that your son has died and you want him back. The pain is eroding you emotionally and you want it taken away even if just for a few short minutes.
For me, no-one understood that the most important response to help someone in this situation is to simply let them talk and to accept that there is no difference between a child living on earth and a child who is no longer with us. For the parent of a lost child, both are the same. All the while, you want nothing more than one opportunity, just once, to talk about your lost child. Never however, did this occur.
The wall, the barrier to acceptance is the not knowing what caused the loss and the circumstances surrounding the death. This quickly becomes a major reason for the perpetual struggle. If someone dies of an illness or an accident, there is a reason. That is something to grasp onto. You know why you have laid them to rest. Having a reason makes it little easier to come terms with the knowledge someone close has died and to process the loss as much as possible. Otherwise the grief is never fully expressed as a major part of the loss remains unresolved and therefore hovers over your life as a lingering black cloud each and every day for rest of your life.
It is an emotional roller coaster – you are suddenly thrust between extreme, sometimes overwhelming emotions, from anxiety, to fear, to despair, to anger, and back again. Sometimes all these emotions occur together. In these moments, you sense a gaping hole in your heart as it is impossible to not think about them every waking moment of every day. I am acutely aware that he is fading from the world’s memory, although never from mine. He is indelibly etched into every corner and crevice of my mind. It is the only way open to keep him alive.
You never stop missing them; you never stop wishing they were there for special occasions; you never stop wanting them nearby; and, you never stop being reminded of them in a myriad of ways. It is the most stressful of losses because it is ambiguous in that it can never be accepted or put behind you and therefore never permits a fleeting moment of comfort of peace. All that can happen is that you learn to get used to it. You allow the memories that hurt to scar over, you learn to cope without expecting it to get better, you accept it is an ongoing struggle to stay fully sane and feel positive about anything.
Every time I see a butterfly I am inexplicably reminded of Justin. I imagine he comes to say hello or to simply be nearby. His plaque has embossed on it an image of a flying man. I chose this for two reasons at the time it was made. The first is that one of his favourite bands was Led Zeppelin and that he had left behind a brand new tee shirt with the same image adhered to it. It was the Icarus image that Led Zeppelin used as the logo for their record label, Swan Song, launched in 1974. I modified the image to be a simplified line drawing suitable for casting in bronze.
The second was for emotive reasons. I felt some comfort in the idea that he was now free from all the torment and heartache he had endured throughout his life. The attachment of wings to his back gave him the ability to fly wherever he chose and seek solace and peace wherever it could be found.
So, whenever I walk somewhere and see a butterfly, particularly ones that land close to me, I tell myself that he still exists somewhere in the universe. That my search for him should not stop. That his soul survives above the painful reality of the physical world that he endured. The butterfly is a perpetual sign that he is somewhere as I hope with all of my heart that he is at peace in a world that is obscured from my sight. I do not care if this seemingly futile search is a sign I seem irrational, believing in the impossible is what sustains my will to live to the end of each and every day.
In the ebb and flow of the days since he died, I find I am perpetually hanging on and letting go of the immediate world, finding my footing again only to discover that once again I am lost in the mire of grief. At times, it is a burden too heavy to carry. But it is not sorrow all the time. There were good times to remember as well, which I know I must prise out of the recesses of my mind, and for those brief flashes of precious time, the grief will slip into the background.
The slightest memory, or song, or words, sets me off and tears well up so rapidly I cannot see what is nearby. Often, when thinking about him, I find I have not heard something or someone nearby. His favourites were Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Neil Young. The song “Heart of Gold” was played at his funeral. I chose the word “noble” not out of emotional disillusionment of some notion of grandeur, but purely because he nobly pursued an understanding of the true meaning of life and to seek out all that was honest and decent in the world.
The Memories that Swirl in my Mind
He was never easy to bring up as a child and teenager. He was always quiet, some would say introverted. Often he would be moody and contemplative. Rarely cooperative with others: he had his own views on how things could be done and quickly refused to work with those he considered pushy and impatient. He disliked arrogance immensely. Many times I found the need to reconcile his intransigence with teachers and later TAFE lecturers. He considered them fools and discerned that they were more interested in pressuring him to jump through hoops rather than actually teach him something worthwhile and useful.
He loved his music and proudly looked after his favourite albums while finding new equipment to add to his hifi system. I once borrowed money to buy him a late model Ford panel van, which needed some minor work. It was red with black accents. Unfortunately from the outset, he showed reluctance to work on the car, repeatedly finding reasons not to do anything to it. I ended up doing most of the work. Once it was completed, instead of enjoying it and keeping it maintained, he sold it and went to Lombok for several weeks to surf. What oftentimes appeared to be ingratitude and disinterest had been a constant source of frustration and disappointment for me.
He was an average student, never showing any real interest in academic work or sport. I did not mind this as I figured that one day he would find his passion and strength and take off from there. I never wanted to push him in any direction that did not appeal to him. His great talent was art. He excelled at this skill and was awarded a special place at Kalamunda Senior High in the Primary Extension and Challenge (PEAC) program for talented students that enabled him to concentrate on art studies. He continued in this field later at TAFE. However, none of his progress in this area was easy. As mentioned, my role was to smooth over differences with his teachers and lecturers.
Even though he never really understood it, I was in fact very proud of his achievements in art and was fully prepared to support it as a career. I understood what it felt like not to be able to pursue what was in your heart due to my father’s complete resistance to everything I wanted to do and as a result, I had no desire to do anything like that to Justin. But despite all the unhindered pathways, and the potential and skills to do well, none of it was easy. Personally, I found it to be exasperating as I would have loved to have received the support I gave him. I was continuously aware of the fine line between enabling him to be himself and needlessly stifling his desires to grow and find his way. I knew how the latter felt and in hindsight fear that I inadvertently provided too little guidance and support.
He never once told me what was wrong or not working or what he needed. It was always a guessing game. I tried many times to get to the root of the obvious absence of happiness and lack of desire to be enthusiastic, but never once got through the steadfast wall he had built around himself. Some of this unwillingness manifested in various ways. It was not unusual to find unopened presents stacked inside his wardrobe. He rarely displayed overt signs of wanting to be part of the broader family structure. Again, this was something I did not fully understand at the time. While there were times when he clearly enjoyed mucking around with his brothers and sisters, there were also times when he revealed a dislike for the things they said and did. Sadly, I never fully understood the reasons for this polarity until many years later.
I have spent considerable time since his death meeting his friends, reading over and over his letters, his medical records, and reading through letters from his brothers and sisters. Slowly, I came to the realisation that there was no doubting the truth of what he had experienced at the hands of a specific person. Someone I naively and mistakenly trusted to protect him. I was astonished that he had kept so much to himself. Not once had he alluded to the extent of the abuse he had been subjected to. It was his admission to a mental health psychologist (recorded on file) that he thought I was aware of the appalling way he had been treated and allowed it to happen, that revealed to me the reasons he could not and did not confide in me.
Only then did I began to grasp the magnitude of what he had been subjected to and the true extent of the devastating effects of what caused him to act the way he did since he was a child. As the realisations that accompanied these understandings coalesced within my mind over the years to follow, his past actions and inconsistencies along with the long term unresolved concerns I held slowly made greater sense. It took a long time to accept the depth of evil that accompanied the cruel physical and mental abuses that inexorably instilled in him a fear of the consequences of telling his father the truth. In his mind, he believed to the day of his death that I would not believe him or worse, physically punish him. These stark revelations made the reasons behind his death far more malicious and insurmountable than it was possible to imagine. An account of what actually happened and the reasons for my reactions have been written down in another document.
2020 The Thirteenth Year since his Death
It has taken me this long to summon the strength and courage to write an account of what happened in May 2007. I have only been able to come to grips with the implications of it all in the past twelve months or so. What seemed like the routine and struggles of life had in fact been a series of well-timed explosive mines strategically set to activate in a systematic chain of destructive, life-altering events. All of it was the result of my own actions and naive assumptions I held about life and its inherent expectations. Whilst the seemingly benign seeds of destruction had been planted and subsequently ignored, and while several futile attempts at making a better life unfolded in an endless cycle of wanting a reasonable degree of security and happiness and then failure, I was never able to achieve the level of contentment that many I knew had gained.
Then the fragility of what little I had built exploded into countless pieces leaving me with nothing: no friends, no money, no assets, no prospects, no work, no family, no children, no credibility, no respect, nothing. Somehow, the seeds of the past had turned into the greatest iniquity in history and I was singled out for an unspeakable punishment for all of what had transpired. The utter and permanent destructiveness of the consequences never matched the relative stupidity and ignorance of the apparent crimes: the death of my son became the punishment I endured even though never once was maliciousness or cruelty intended on my part.
Unexpectedly, the past became an insurmountable mountain of what ifs and I wish I had not. Every one of which set the stage for Justin’s death. Whilst I could not have nor could be expected to control the thoughts, actions and reactions of others, the one big ‘what if’ was would he still be alive had I not met certain people and had questioned more thoroughly their lies and deceptions.
I still am unable to reconcile these recent realisations. It is almost a chicken and egg struggle as to ‘what was first?’ and ‘who is ultimately responsible?’ Am I solely responsible for making decisions that turned out so destructive in their consequences or should I direct the blame towards those who imposed their reprehensible, self-serving manipulations and deceptions onto Justin’s and my lives? The dilemma that prevents any mitigation of these thoughts is that it is my son who has now been dead for almost 13 years, while those that played a major role in mistreating him have not been touched in any way. Their lives continued without consequences and clearly without remorse.
Although the subject of another essay, the unimaginable emotions of all that is written here is made even more surreal by the actions of his siblings, my other children, who callously cut ties with me soon after Justin’s death for daring to reveal the truth about what led to his taking his life.
Since watching him being lowered into the ground forever, I have desperately tried to accept the contradiction that joy and sorrow coexist and can be inextricably linked, twisted together in a foreign new emotion that keeps your child alive and present within your heart. In the end, this is welcomed as opposed to feeling nothing. There is no way to go back to the life you once knew and in its place you come to understand, eventually, that this is what it means to have lost a child.
All I have left are the memories that I am determined to hold onto with an iron will. So much of his childhood exists in my hazed, confused recollections. The nuances of him are blurred; the details of the memories slowly fade as he is no longer present to replace them. And so I continually strive to materialise him, to keep him in this world, through countless painful efforts to hang onto the precious memories that remain in my mind. One never copes, there will never be a conclusion, no complete explanation will ever be forthcoming, the pointlessness of it all will never dissipate, and the pain will only stop when I too hopefully, one day can join him.
The reality of what happened to my son is that everything about it was and still is wrong. Horribly, cruelly, deceptively, malevolently wrong. His death was needless, it should never have happened. No gun was pointed at his head, no knife penetrated his heart, no car crash or disease took his life, yet a far more insidious, equally lethal weapon caused him to take has own life. His spirit was crushed: his self-esteem and confidence were extinguished and replaced with fear, deception, and hopelessness.
The worst part is the one person primarily responsible for wielding this weapon will never be punished for what they have done – the law does not recognise such crimes. There are others who should also be held responsible – those who ignorantly and selfishly perpetuated the treatment that had so effectively primed him for that last fateful day of his life. All these people should know that the truth has not been forgotten.
Justin did not willingly take his own life: he was driven to it. Technically he died by way of suicide, the act of intentionally, knowingly taking one’s own life. In reality, he was relentlessly pushed into a frighteningly dark abyss from which he could see no way out. Where Justin is concerned, suicide is a convenient lie for protecting those who put him there.
Sunday the 17th of May 2020 marks the thirteenth year since Justin’s death. Over the past few weeks, after all that time, I summoned up the strength and courage to write down some of what has transpired and in so doing allude to the horror I have lived with for those thirteen years. Hopefully, those who are close to me may glimpse the depth of the darkness that entered my life on the day he died and gain some understanding as to why it is so difficult for me to smile anymore.
Finally, if you are ever at a loss to know what to say, I ask you to forget everything you think you know about grief and in its place, re-imagine all of it in the light of what is written above.
This is a letter from Justin’s father for those able to grasp a small part of the inconsolable anguish of losing a child.
A special tribute to the late Larry Pickering 18 October 1942 – 19 November 2018
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