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Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers

Written by Elizabeth EdwardsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth Edwards


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On Sale: September 26, 2006
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-7679-2635-5
Published by : Broadway Books Crown/Archetype

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She charmed America with her smart, likable, down-to-earth personality as she campaigned for her husband, then vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. She inspired millions as she valiantly fought advanced breast cancer after being diagnosed only days before the 2004 election. She touched hundreds of similarly grieving families when her own son, Wade, died tragically at age sixteen in 1996. Now she shares her experiences in Saving Graces, an incandescent memoir of Edwards’ trials, tragedies, and triumphs, and of how various communities celebrated her joys and lent her steady strength and quiet hope in darker times.

Edwards writes about growing up in a military family, where she learned how to make friends easily in dozens of new schools and neighborhoods around the world and came to appreciate the unstinting help and comfort naval families shared. Edwards’ reminiscences of her years as a mother focus on the support she and other parents offered one another, from everyday favors to the ultimate test of her own community’s strength—their compassionate response to the death of the Edwards’ teenage son, Wade, in 1996. Her descriptions of her husband’s campaigns for Senate, president, and vice president offer a fascinating perspective on the groups, great and small, that sustain our democracy. Her fight with breast cancer, which stirred an outpouring of support from women across the country, has once again affirmed Edwards’ belief in the power of community to make our lives better and richer.



October 21, 2004

My face was tilted toward the stream of water from the shower-head. Water spilled from the corners of my closed eyes as my fingers outlined the unfamiliar lump in my right breast. Around and around again, I traced its edges. Try as I might, it wouldn’t go away. How could I have missed something this size when I showered yesterday? Or the day before? Or . . . but it didn’t matter. I’d found it today, this lump, firm and big on the side of my breast. I kept my eyes closed and finished rinsing my hair.

Until that moment–until the lump–October 21, 2004, was meant to be an ordinary day, if such a thing can exist on a campaign trail two weeks before a presidential election. An 11:00 A.M. town hall meeting at the Kenosha United Auto Workers hall. A rally later that day in Erie, Pennsylvania. Scranton in time for dinner, and Maine by sunrise the next morning. I would speak to at least two thousand people, prepare to tape a segment for Good Morning America, discuss Medicare premiums with senior citizens, talk college tuition with parents, and, if it was a very good day, influence at least a few undecided voters. Just another ordinary day.

But I had learned long ago that it was typically the most ordinary days that the careful pieces of life can break away and shatter. As I climbed out of the shower, I heard the door to my hotel room click shut. I knew instantly who it was, and I was relieved. “Hargrave,” I called out from the bathroom, wrapping myself in a towel, “come feel this.” Hargrave McElroy was my dear friend of twenty-three years, my daughter Cate’s godmother, a teacher at the high school my children had attended, and now my assistant and companion on the road. She had agreed to travel with me after John had been named the Democratic vice presidential nominee. I had previously chased away a couple of well-intentioned young assistants who aroused my desire to parent them instead of letting them take care of me, which was wearing me out. I needed a grown-up, and I asked Hargrave to join me. She had no experience on campaigns, but she was a teacher and what’s more, the mother of three boys. That’s enough experience to handle any job. Choosing Hargrave was one of the best decisions I would make. She instinctively knew when to buy more cough drops, when to hand me a fresh Diet Coke, and, I now hoped, what to do after one discovers a lump in her breast.

Hargrave pressed her fingers against the bulge on my right breast, which felt as smooth and firm as a plum. She pressed her lips together and looked at me directly and gently, just like she was listening to a student in one of her classes give the wrong answer. “Hmmm,” she said, calmly meeting my eyes. “When was your last mammogram?”

I hated to admit it, but it had been too long, much too long. For years, I had made all the excuses women make for not taking care of these things–the two young children I was raising, the house I was running. We had moved to Washington four years earlier, and I had never found a doctor there. Life just always seemed to get in the way. All lousy excuses, I knew, for not taking care of myself.

“We better get that checked out as soon as we can,” Hargrave said.

I had a feeling she meant that very morning, but that was not going to be possible. We had less than two weeks before the election. Undoubtedly people had already gathered in the union hall to listen to the speakers scheduled before me, and there were young volunteers setting up for a town hall in Erie, and–as the King of Siam said in the musical–“et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” My lump would have to wait; the ordinary day would go on as scheduled. Except for one thing. Today, I planned to go shopping.

The previous evening, I had spotted an outlet mall on our way to the hotel. We had spent the night in a Radisson–a fact I discovered that morning when I read the soap in the bathroom. Since I started campaigning, it had been a different hotel in a different city each night. We would arrive late, traveling after it was too late to campaign, and we would enter and exit most hotels through the same back door used to take out the trash. Unless the trash dumpster bore the name of the hotel, I’d figure out where we were only if I remembered to look at the soap in the bathroom.

As soon as we spotted the outlets, Hargrave, Karen Finney–my press secretary–and I started calculating. The stores would open at ten, and it was a ten-minute drive to the UAW hall. That left about forty-five minutes to shop. It wasn’t a lot of time, but for three women who hadn’t been shopping in months, it was a gracious plenty. Despite the lump and everything it might mean, I had no intention of changing our plan. We had all been looking forward to the unprecedented time devoted to something as mindless, frivolous, and selfish as shopping. The clothes I had in my suitcase that day were basically the same ones I had packed when I left Washington in early July, and it was now nearing November in Wisconsin. It was cold, I was sick of my clothes, and, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly concerned about the lump. This had happened before, about ten years earlier. I had found what turned out to be a harmless fibrous cyst. I had it removed, and there were no problems. Granted, this lump was clearly larger than the other, but as I felt its smooth contour, I was convinced this had to be another cyst. I wasn’t going to allow myself to think it could be anything else.

In the backseat of the Suburban, I told Hargrave how to reach Wells Edmundson, my doctor in Raleigh. With the phone pressed to her ear, she asked me for the details. No, the skin on my breast wasn’t puckered. Yes, I had found a small lump before.

At the Dana Buchman outlet, I looked through the blazers as Hargrave stood nearby, still on the phone to Wells. I spotted a terrific red jacket, and I waved to Hargrave for her opinion. “The lump was really pretty big,” she said into the phone while giving me a thumbs-up on the blazer. There we were, two women, surrounded by men with earpieces, whispering about lumps and flipping through the sales rack. The saleswomen huddled, their eyes darting from the Secret Service agents to the few customers in the store. Then they huddled again. Neither of us looked like someone who warranted special protection–certainly not me, flipping through the racks at manic speed, watching the clock tick toward 10:30. Whatever worry I had felt earlier, Hargrave had taken on. She had made the phone calls; she had heard the urgent voices on the other end. She would worry, and she would let me be the naive optimist. And I was grateful for that.

She hung up the phone. “Are you sure you want to keep going?” she asked me, pointing out that our schedule during the remaining eleven days until the election entailed stops in thirty-five cities. “It could be exhausting.” Stopping wasn’t going to make the lump go away, and exhaustion was a word I had long ago banished from my vocabulary.

“I’m fine,” I said. “And I’m getting this red blazer.”

“You’re braver than I am,” she told me. “From now on, I will always think of that blazer as the Courage Jacket.” Within minutes, she was back on the phone with Kathleen McGlynn, our scheduler in D.C., who could make even impossible schedules work, telling her only that we needed some free time the next Friday for a private appointment.

While I bought a suit and that red jacket, Hargrave set up an appointment with Dr. Edmundson for the next week, when we were scheduled to return to Raleigh. Through the phone calls and despite her worry, she still found a pale pink jacket that suited her gentle nature perfectly. All the plans to deal with the lump were made, and the appointments were days away. I wanted to push it all aside, and thanks to Hargrave and the thirty-five cities in my near future, I could. We gathered Karen and headed out for that ordinary day.

The town hall meeting went well–except at one point I reversed the names of George Bush and John Kerry in a line I had delivered a hundred times, a mistake I had never made before and never made after. “While John Kerry protects the bank accounts of pharmaceutical companies by banning the safe reimportation of prescription drugs, George Bush wants to protect your bank account. . . .” I got no further, as the crowd groaned, and one old man in the front good-naturedly shouted out that I’d gotten it backwards. “Oops.” I said it again, right this time, and we had a good laugh. I looked at Hargrave and rolled my eyes. Was this how it would be for the next week? Fortunately, it was not. We flew to an icy Pennsylvania, where the two town halls went well enough, or at least without event. I had my legs again. And then on to Maine for the following day.

I could tell by the look on the technician’s face that it was bad news. Hargrave and I–and the Secret Service agents–had ridden to Dr. Edmundson’s office as soon as we landed back in Raleigh the following week, just four days before the election. I had told Karen and Ryan Montoya, my trip director on the road, about the lump, and the Secret Service agents knew what was going on because they were always there, though they never mentioned a word about it to me or to anyone else. Ryan had quietly disappeared to my house in Raleigh, and the Secret Service agents respectfully kept a greater distance as Hargrave led me inside. I was lucky because Wells Edmundson was not only my doctor, he was our friend. His daughter Erin had played soccer with our daughter Cate on one of the teams that John coached over the years. His nurse, Cindy, met me at the back door and led me to Wells’ office, dotted with pictures of his children.

“I don’t have the equipment here to tell you anything for certain,” Wells said after examining the lump. Ever the optimist, he agreed that the smooth contour I felt could be a cyst, and ever the cautious doctor, he ordered an immediate mammogram. His attitude seemed so very positive, I was more buoyed than worried. As Hargrave and I rode to a nearby radiology lab for the test, I felt fine. One thing I had learned over the years: hope is precious, and there’s no reason to give it up until you absolutely have to.

This is where the story changes, of course. The ultrasound, which followed the mammogram that day, looked terrible. The bump may have felt smooth to my touch, but on the other side–on the inside–it had grown tentacles, now glowing a slippery green on the computer screen. The technician called in the radiologist. Time moved like molasses as I lay in the cold examining room. I grew more worried, and then came the words that by this point seemed inevitable: “This is very serious.” The radiologist’s face was a portrait of gloom.

I dressed and walked back out as I had walked in, through a darkened staff lounge toward a back door where the Secret Service car and Hargrave waited for me. I was alone in the dark, and I felt frightened and vulnerable. This was the darkest moment, the moment it really hit me. I had cancer. As the weight of it sank in, I slowed my step and the tears pushed against my eyes. I pushed back. Not now. Now I had to walk back into that sunlight, that beautiful Carolina day, to the Secret Service and to Hargrave, who would be watching my face for clues just as I had watched the image on the ultrasound monitor.

“It’s bad,” was all I could manage to Hargrave.

As the Secret Service backed out onto the road for home, Hargrave rubbed my shoulder and silent tears snuck across my cheeks. I had to call John, and I couldn’t do that until I could speak without crying. The thing I wanted to do most was talk to him, and the thing I wanted to do least was tell him this news.

I had mentioned nothing to John earlier, although I spoke to him several times a day during the campaign, as we had for our entire marriage. I couldn’t let him worry when he was so far away. And I had hoped there would be nothing to tell him. Certainly not this. I had promised myself he would never have to hear bad news again. He–and Cate, our older daughter–had suffered too much already. Our son Wade had been killed in an auto accident eight years earlier, and we had all been through the worst life could deal us. I never wanted to see either of them experience one more moment of sadness. And, after almost thirty years of marriage, I knew exactly how John would respond. As soon as he heard, he would insist that we drop everything and take care of the problem.

Sitting in the car, I dialed John’s number. Lexi Bar, who had been with us for years and was like family, answered. I skipped our usual banter and asked to speak to John. He had just landed in Raleigh–we had both come home to vote and to attend a large rally where the rock star Jon Bon Jovi was scheduled to perform.

He got on the phone, and I started slowly. “Sweetie,” I began. It’s how I always began. And then came the difference: I couldn’t speak. Tears were there, panic was there, need was there, but not words. He knew, of course, when I couldn’t speak that something was wrong.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” he insisted.

I explained that I had found the lump, had it checked out by Wells, and now needed to have a needle biopsy. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I assured him and told him that I wanted to wait until after the election to have the biopsy. He said he’d come right home, and I went there to wait for him.

From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth Edwards|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Edwards - Saving Graces

Photo © Courtesy of Elizabeth Edwards

ELIZABETH EDWARDS, a lawyer, worked for the North Carolina Attorney General’s office and at the law firm Merriman, Nichols, and Crampton in Raleigh, and she also taught legal writing as an adjunct instructor at the law school of North Carolina University. She passed away in 2010.

Author Q&A

How are you feeling these days–in terms of your spirits and your health?

At my last clinic visit — after a round of scans to check for signs of cancer — my doctor, Lisa Carey, looked at the stack of papers I brought with me to work on while I was waiting and she said, “You have a lot going on, but cancer is not one of them.” Those were great words to hear, and it is impossible not to feel buoyed by that news. Are there still lingering ailments? Sure, but “cancer is not one of them” so I am not complaining.

When did you begin to write Saving Graces? What were the challenges of trying to capture your life in a manuscript?

The bulk of Saving Graces was written in the winter and early spring of 2006. I had written pieces before but the book started to take shape only after I made a daily commitment. For the months it took to write, the children always knew where to find me: at the computer. Sometimes, I have to admit, I was also in the attic, going through old photographs or newspaper clippings to make certain I had names and dates right, and — far from being work — that part was great fun.

The challenges of capturing any life in a book are that it took 57 years to get here and no one will read something that takes 57 years to finish. So the process of editing means by definition leaving things out. It is hard when you have lived the life to know which parts can be conveyed in a book and which parts should be relegated to family reunions. That is where having a great editor, as I did with Stacy Creamer at Broadway Books, is invaluable.

Your childhood recollections are full of interesting details. How did living overseas shape your sense of what it means to be an American? Do you think being an American today conveys the same meaning as when you were a child?

Growing up overseas in military communities meant that we were totally American without having many of the touchstones to American culture that others in our generation would have. (Imagine that there is a decade in your growing up where you didn’t see a single television show, for example.) I think in many ways it meant we clung to being American even more fiercely. I have tried to pass that aspect to our children, developing a deep and real pride in our country.

There was a time before September 11th when I think we might have seen a general drift away from a conscious patriotism generally, maybe because we didn’t have a single threatening superpower like the Soviet Union on the horizon. But after September 11th and since then, there has been a renewal in the open expression of patriotism and in the values that we hope are associated with this country.

In what ways were the childhoods of your four children different from your own? What were the earliest lessons you tried to teach them?

The one thing I wanted to give my children was a single place that they could call home, something I never had. It didn’t work out completely, but in some ways they have had the best of what I experienced and what I am dreamed of having. They have traveled, as I did, but they have real roots in a place, too.

The earliest lessons have to be the simplest: honesty, responsibility, respect for others. In truth, I think you have a lot of responsibilities as a parent. You need to teach your children cleanliness and manners and a work ethic and real ethics. You need to teach them how to make dinner for themselves and how to study for a test and a thousand other things, big and small. But none of this matters if you don’t also give them wings. You never know how well you did at parenting until they leave. As hard as it is to see them go, the job is not complete until they are able to fly for themselves. So I have spent a lot of time urging all four of my children to try new things, to meet new people, to step up on their own.

Having been raised in a military family, you came to know about this particular kind of community and the untold ways its members support one another. What should civilians (whether they are political leaders or not) do to “return the favor” for the tremendous sacrifices made by soldiers and their families?

There are lots of ways in which we could show our appreciation to military men and women and their families, starting with the incredibly simple act of saying “thank you” when you cross their paths. I am always heartened when I see signs in stores that give discounts to people with military ID cards — which happens a lot in North Carolina where we are blessed with lots of bases. If you live near a base where there are a lot of deployments, you could reach out to the family support centers on those bases and see if there are ways to help.

I admit that I have been disappointed for some time by our governmental stinginess with the military, the military family, the veteran, and the veteran’s family. It would be great if all the civilians spoke up — it is hard for active duty military men and women to do so — for pay increases (so that some military families don’t qualify for food stamps), for better medical care even if the military family is not near a base and better care for all veterans, for more retirement support for widows and widowers. These issues come up in Congress all the time, but until they understand that all their constituents, not just those in the military, care, Congress will not give these issues the priority they deserve.

Was it difficult for you to make the transition from your legal career to motherhood? What advice do you have for working women who are about to become mothers?

Once I went to an ethics seminar. All North Carolina lawyers, probably lawyers everywhere, have to take a certain number of continuing legal education course in ethics. (I admit I always assumed that unethical lawyers, like unethical professions everywhere, knew what was ethical and what was not, but chose to act unethically. So I wasn’t sure what the purpose was, but I went anyway.) At this seminar, a young woman lawyer contemplating having children asked me about balancing, and I told her what I did: I decided which job, mothering or lawyering, was the priority — mothering won — and from that point on balancing was easy. When I was doing it day to day, which I did at first, it was very difficult; I could make the argument for why this school recital was important and why this contract was important. I made decisions that allowed me to work: my children attended the YMCA after-school program, for example, but when there was a teacher workday or some other conflict with work, mothering won out.

You described how hard it was for you to write the passages about Wade’s death. How did you get through this part of your book project? What did you most want your readers to know about him?

Writing about Wade, like thinking about him, is both hard and wonderful. It was hard to revisit the things I wrote at the time he died because I was so raw then and the writings reflect that. As for what I wanted the reader to know about Wade, I knew first that they would not trust what a mother had to say, but I was lucky. Alise Tharpe had gone to school with Wade, and she described him in a letter she gave me which she allowed me to include in the book. Her description of a sweet, fun, and monumentally thoughtful boy will, I hope, convince the reader about Wade in a way my words never could.

Where do you think Cate’s law degree will take her? Has she shown any interest in having a political career?

Cate is interested in public interest law, that is working with governments, non-governmental organizations or non-profit organizations on issues of public interest, such as access to justice, access to democratic processes, constitutional, civil and human rights, energy and environmental policies, labor policies, global political, financial, trade, and technological issues, poverty, or children’s or women’s issues. Although I thought she was terrific on the campaign trail, usually appearing by herself and taking questions, she has not expressed any interest in a political career.

In the book, you write candidly about differences of opinion between your husband and John Kerry over certain aspects of the campaign (including when to concede). Was it difficult to decide how frank to be in your memoir? Were there certain topics you decided would be off-limits altogether?

I tried to tell the story in the way that would be truthful. It would have been impossible, for example, to tell the story of the end of the campaign and the beginning of our fight against breast cancer without saying how hard it was to let go of the campaign, that John did not want to let go until the promise to count every vote had been fulfilled. Politics are like other human interactions; people will have differences. I didn’t describe every difference of opinion not because it was “off-limits” or to keep a secret but because not every difference of opinion is structurally a part of the book.

Do you think the political landscape has shifted since the 2004 election?

The public trust on which the President counted in 2004 has clearly eroded as more and more information about the initiation of the war in Iraq are revealed, and frankly, I don’t know how you rebuild lost trust. It is one of the reasons why it is important to be honest whatever the short-term cost. And the lobbying and leak scandals in Washington have driven a further wedge in the public trust in any part of their government. But I think that the American people want to believe in their President and want to believe that their elected officials care about them; that hasn’t changed.

How has your understanding of cancer diagnosis and treatment changed now that you have been through it? Did you have any of the classic risk factors (such as a family history of the disease)?

No one on my mother’s side of the family has had breast cancer, so I don’t think I have a relevant family history. What we are learning now — and my doctor, Lisa Carey, is responsible in part for these breakthroughs — is that breast cancer is not one disease but an umbrella for lots of cancers that occur in the breast, with different causes and different prognoses and, we have reason to hope, different cures that can be identified as we identify the causes and triggers for each cancer. As to the current treatment, I am now much more informed about how physically difficult the chemotherapy regimen is and how it alters every part of a patient’s life, whether or not they have a support system in place.

How did you react to becoming a patient rather than a caregiver?

I fought looking at myself as a patient because I didn’t want to be a “victim” of cancer. I wanted to get started immediately after the biopsy results; I wanted to turn the tables on cancer and be the aggressor. But in the end, I was the patient; I was, undoubtedly, the victim, eventually physically leveled by the treatment. I was very lucky though, because I had a caregiver; my husband John took great care of me.

Did your illness affect your feelings about America’s health care system?

My experience confirmed what I believed I knew about the health care system — that we have an inequitable system that provides great health care for a few and less thorough health care for everyone else. People come from all over the world to get medical treatment in America because we have such fine hospitals and doctors. Too many Americans, however, don’t have access to them. Maybe they don’t have health insurance or their health insurance doesn’t cover the treatment that would be the very best for them. Whatever the excuses, my experience convinced me we need to finally do something to rectify the inequities.

You have received much from friends and strangers, and you have also given them much; the computer lab established in Wade’s memory is but one example. How would you advise readers who want to do similar good works that might bring solace and strength to others? Where have you seen the most need in your travels throughout the country?

In the book I tell the story of Helen who bought crayons for her Sunday School with the little money she was able to use for her “good works” and I also tell the story of Lyght who delivered meals to the needy. In giving, the size of the gesture is a poor measure. What matters is that you actually do it. We too often talk about giving Christmas to a needy family or working a few hours at the Goodwill Store, but then we don’t follow through. For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, sometimes it is helpful to do something for others that you can see, and if that feels right to you, consider going to your local parks department and asking to see their wish list. It might be bulbs for a garden or a tree on a greenway or something more expensive, but you will be able to find something. For those who don’t need the affirmation a physical gift provides, there are lots of opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives, but the key here is continuity. Your church, your social services office, your school system, your hospital, local non-profit organizations can all provide you with their versions of wish lists — taking meals, reading to the young or the old, visiting with the home bound or hospitalized, filling the shelves of the food bank. But the real key is to commit to help regularly, to be someone that they can count on.

You’re a lifelong lover of literature and have tried to nurture this trait in your children also. What books would you like to recommend to your readers and their children?

Everyone has their own taste in literature but I think it is a good idea to include in your regular reading two categories of books. One, read a classic at least once a year. You know, a book you were supposed to read in eleventh grade but never really did. Read it now. You don’t have to give up whatever you love to read; just include something that stretches your mind a little. And two, read something by authors from your state or region. You might find a little of yourself on those pages.

Saving Graces concludes with images of your new home and other new beginnings. What are your dreams for the next chapter of your life?

There will be mornings, not long from now, when I will wake up and look across the meadow in our backyard at deer grazing — I hope they won’t be in my garden. And I may make breakfast again, like I did a decade ago, for a houseful of boys and girls who stayed the night with Emma Claire and Jack. And I will finally have a place to paint and write, and a warm family kitchen in which to cook. I hope to have a small tractor — maybe this Christmas (a hint to John) — so that I can work on the paths in the woods I hope to clear so that when we grow old we can walk the woods in the early mornings. Maybe Cate will call from her new life and maybe John will bring me something he read, like he always does, and if they do, I will certainly think life is nearly perfect. Nearly is a word I have to use after losing Wade, but nearly perfect is not so bad a dream.

From the Hardcover edition.



Reader Praise for Saving Graces

“I feel as if I’ve just had a long heart-to-heart with a wonderful new friend. Your writing is so open and engaging, truly.” 
— Louisa Dykstra, Des Moines, IA 

“I admire your continued courage, wisdom, and generosity. You are truly an inspiration.”
— Peggy Abrams, Raleigh, NC

“I wept when I read about your son Wade, and I can't even imagine how you felt when you discovered your breast cancer. But you are a survivor. Your strength is an inspiration to me. Thank you.”
— Amy Manata, Skokie, IL

“I have taken so much wisdom from your words and those of your husband. Life is full of heartache. But life is such a wonderful tapestry of colors, grays and oranges, sad ones, happy ones. . . “
— Priscilla Harcourt, Tewksbury, MA

“You are an inspiration and not simply because of your own courage but because you lead us to other heroes. You show me the hero that is your son and the hero that is my mother.”
— Carina Ost, Los Angeles, CA

“It is you who deserves our graces. You showed the world how to be strong, courageous, and most of all determined.”
— Eddie Alexander, San Mateo, CA

“You have been an inspiration to me because of your grace and consideration to all of us who support your battle against breast cancer as well as your obvious humanity and ability to speak to us as though we were in your living room.”
— Ellen E. Schaefer, Eugene, OR

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