Birthday grace

I spent last Saturday with my sisters, participating in the Travis County Walk to End Alzheimer’s and celebrating my birthday at an Austin restaurant.  While we waited for our food order, GJ, the oldest of we three sisters, handed gallon Ziploc bags full of photos to MA and me.  “These are just your personal pictures and things,” she explained.  “They were in the photo boxes from Mother’s.”


Planning my escape at an early age.

MA acted like she’d been handed a bag of Skittles, ripping open the seal and gleefully dumping pictures on the table.  (Thank you!  THANK YOU! Look at me with my best friend!  This is just wonderful.  Thank you!)

I reacted like I’d been handed a bag of spiders, shoving the sack deep into recesses of my purse.  (How…nice.  Thank you.)

What the hell was the matter with me?  I ask that question often, but this time it was on a different level.  In the back part of my mind lurks The Critic.  She doesn’t get to surface often in my sobriety, but she leapt out of the closet and started shouting answers to that question:  Let me tell you what’s the matter with you.  Childhood, adolescent, single mom, married mom, widow woman, married woman, alcoholic inadequacies became grey noise to the conversations around me until I woman-handled them back into my subconscious.


The whole family with G’ma.  If I could talk to 12 year old me, I’d tell her. “It gets better.”

On the way back to GE’s house, I pulled out one and then another of the pictures.  Bob gave me a what’s up glance and I explained what had been roiling under my skull.  When we got home,  I looked at the pictures slowly, playing a hidden object game with the facial expressions and glances.

There’s a saying: As far as anyone knows, we are a normal family.  Scanning the pictures, we look like ordinary every day people.   I recognize the ism’s that were rooted in us and the white knuckle effort employed to keep the secrets. There’s a shadow for every ray of light


Really.  It does get better.

We had older parents.  WW2 delayed starting a family so they were well into their 30’s and 40’s when we came along.  Older parents offered economic security and maturity.  We had the original issue parents; divorce wasn’t on the table. I never doubted that they wanted us.  They were articulate and talked to us like we were adults.  They instilled a curiosity about the world, a sense of service to others, and a love of God.

I read somewhere that no two children in a family have the same set of parents.  Parents grow and change, have learning experiences, health issues which impact the way they raise their children. There were three of us with me in the middle.  I don’t know which parents my sisters had, but my take-away was that I was loved in direct proportion to my good works and achievements.   That wasn’t true, but that was my childhood perception.

adult-women-sistersLooking at those photos gave me renewed love for the people who share my DNA and my secrets so intimately.  I know how hard it is to raise children, how many mistakes I made and make still.  How did Dorothy and David do it, coming from the Depression era to the Age of Aquarius?  Pretty clumsily sometimes, like a rock star sometimes.

There was also sadness when I looked at young Margaret who spent so much time critical of herself.  I wasted so much time wanting to be something I couldn’t ever be, looking for a mold that I could fit only to find that I didn’t need a mold at all. I am the mold. You don’t like me?  Oh, well.

That’s not true, either.  I still worry.  But less.  Much less.

Posted in Aging, Family, God, Gratitude, kids, Middle child, nostalgia, Relationships, Sisters, Sober Life, Uncategorized, Women's issues | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facts are optional

My perception is my reality. Facts are optional.

Somebody said that at a meeting a few months ago and it got a laugh.  Of course it did.  He said it at an AA meeting and the only thing this alcoholic woman is addicted to more than alcohol is escape from reality.

Jeez.  Any port in storm as long as that port lets me pretend like there is no storm.

5a20016d951d5ed02e99bba80a0b4789Our dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when he was 75.  He’d shown signs of dementia for a few years before that, but this was in the early 80’s when there wasn’t much known or written about Alzheimer’s.  The prognosis hasn’t changed since then nor has the method of diagnosis.  In 1982 as today there was no effective diagnosis or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.  No one survives and a correct diagnosis can’t be made without an autopsy.

We were young, my sisters and I, and had to make choices that our mother wasn’t able to make.  Our parents weren’t kids when they started their family; Daddy was nearly 50 when my younger sister came along.  My way of coping was oblivion.  I muscled it through during the day and drowned the pain at night.

In the end, our dad sporadically recognized us.  He knew we were people he should know, but he didn’t generally know why he knew us.  The exceptions were his grand-daughters.  With them there was a spark that remained throughout the visit.  Maybe he thought they were his little girls.  I don’t know.  I feared that he thought we’d abandoned him, that we didn’t care.  We never knew what he understood and what he believed.  Theories that he was aware but trapped in an uncooperative mind devastated us.

Our dad died in 1986.  For over 10 years I smoked 3 packs of cigarettes a day.  Why didn’t I quit?  Well, hell.  Might as well die from lung cancer instead of Alzheimer’s.  I drank quarts of vodka, boxes of wine, and 12 packs of beer.  Why didn’t I quit?  For heaven’s sake!  Might as well die from liver failure as Alzheimer’s.

Nutty thinking?  Yes.  But it was the flag that flew over my life.

In the mid-90’s, the company I worked for did construction work at a local senior center where a medical group visited periodically to do genetic testing, screening for Alzheimer’s disease.  I wondered whether I would subject myself to such testing.  The thought was immediately followed with an “ABSOLUTELY NOT!  If I found out I was going to get Alzheimer’s, I’d commit suicide.”

That was 20 years ago and it’s lucky I didn’t dare to get tested.  The genetic markers they were aware of then were misleading and only showed a tiny slice of the picture.  Today, scientists are aware of more than 20 gene variants that affect the chances of a person developing late onset Alzheimer’s disease which is what our dad had.

The effects of these genes are subtle. Different variants act to slightly increase or decrease the risk of a person developing Alzheimer’s disease but do not directly cause it. These ‘risk genes’ interact with each other and with other factors, such as age and lifestyle, to influence someone’s overall risk of getting the disease.


Volunteering for genetic testing helps.  Think about participating.

I’ve become more knowledgeable about these genetic markers because my friend Chris in Kansas shared information about the Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry ( which encourages genetic testing.   According to their website:  “Volunteers are critical to Alzheimer’s disease genetics research. The more genetic information that researchers can gather and analyze from individuals and families—both healthy volunteers and those who may be at risk—the more clues they will have for finding additional risk-factor genes.”

I signed up to be part of their research program a few weeks ago; the test kit made it to my house last week.  It has sat on the pantry shelves, right next to honey roasted nuts, for the past 5 days.  I’m not sure why the hesitation to spit on the stick and send in the kit.  They won’t tell me one way or the other what they find although the results might generate medication trial requests.  Or I may never hear from them.

The days of turning up the volume on Sirius to drown out the weird engine noises have passed for me.  I suspect adding my saliva to the National Institute for Aging’s genetic research programs work more for my kids and grand-kids than for me.  And that makes it important for me to participate.


Team Dave’s Girls at the 2015 Travis County Walk to End Alzheimer’s

If you don’t want to participate in genetic research, please support your local Walk to End Alzheimer’s.  My sisters and I participate in the Travis County Walk.  The money raised goes to research on the disease and treatment as well as assisting persons with Alzheimer’s.  To donate to our team, go to and make a donation!



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Driving Miss Baby

GE and Melissa 2

It was easy to get GE to Frances’ house for daycare. Her first best friend was Frances’ granddaughter

In the 70’s when I started working, single career moms weren’t common in my part of south Texas.  I was lucky to find Frances who provided affordable care for several children and who was willing to keep GE. There was a revolving door at her house with her grown up kids and grand-kids coming for soap operas, for gossip, or for the daily lunch special.  The family welcomed GE like she was one of the tribe.

Getting GE to Frances’ house was a problem.  That was in the days when my reason for being in a 12 step program was developing.  I believe I was born an alcoholic but, like pregnancy, it took awhile for it to show.  Natally speaking, I was in my first trimester of alcoholism.  I could still party long and hard but waking up wasn’t easy.  I raced out of the house many mornings, pulling GE along, fixing her hair at stop lights and tying her shoe laces in Frances’ driveway.

When  JD came along, I wasn’t less chaotic, but I had plenty of help getting off to work.  John had a flexible schedule at his work since he was the boss and did the morning go to work duties.  GE was always ready to fill in the gaps.  As a result, he was probably less traumatized by early mornings than GE was.

Today, I am a relatively organized morning person, putting our lunches together each night, coffee pot ready to go off 5 minutes before the alarm, clothes set out.  A few weeks ago, I got a reminder of the working parent routine when Ashlynn, our favorite 3 year old, spent a couple of nights with us.  Delivery to day care was complicated because I’d forgotten a 7:30 a.m. project meeting and her day care doesn’t open until 7:30.

2016-04-29 17.21.12

Happy on the way to the job site before we had to face daycare reality.

Ashlynn wakes up pretty happy, but we normally have time for cartoons, breakfast, and cuddles before she has to get dressed.  We didn’t have that luxury and I rushed her out the door with a smoothie and cereal cup to eat on the road.  She happily sang “Wiggledy Woggledy Waby” all the way to the job.  I stopped at the project and, since it was an undisturbed site, she was able to walk along with me, comparing plans with site conditions and talking to the general contractor.

Before I could take her to day care, I had to make a side trip.  Our port project was dangerous with an excavation 14′ deep and heavy equipment rolling in all directions.  She patiently waited in the car, coloring on a set of construction plans and talking to her doll.  Before we got back on the road, I sent Bob a text and mentioned that I hadn’t dropped Ashlynn off yet.  (You better hurry.  She’s got to be there by 9:30 or they won’t take her.  No big deal.  It’s 8:45 now.  We’ve got plenty time.)

2016-06-06 13.27.49

She patiently waited in the car while I talked to my boss.

Two minutes after we left the job, Ashlynn called out, Gaga, GaGA, GAGA! You forgot to let me go potty.  And I HAVE TO GO. NOW!!!!  (Can you hold it?)  NO.  I. HAVE. TO. GO. NOOOWWW.

We were on Joe Fulton Corridor which is deserted.  No Stripes.  I won’t use the job site portable toilet and I certainly wouldn’t let her use it.  There was no place to stop.  (Do you think you can go on the ground?)   YES.  I HAVE TO GO.  I REALLYREALLYREALLY  HAVE TO GO.

We pulled over to the shoulder and I made her a partition with the car doors.  It was when we got to the squanting and going that we had a problem.  I didn’t account for urine projectory and she ended up getting both of us wet.  There was nothing to do but go home and change clothes.  After a shower.  I called Chelsea and asked if daycare was serious about the deadline.   Yes, they are.  But I can see if they’ll make an exception.  They granted me a 15 minute dispensation.

I suspect Chelsea and Ashlynn had encountered the 9:30 deadline because Ashlynn said in a mournful voice:  I might have to stay with you, Gaga.  I can’t go to school if we get there late.   (No, sweetie.  We’ve got time.)   I don’t think so, Gaga.  If we’re late, we’ll have to go home.  Or I could stay at your office.

The reality of day care and Ashlynn’s hopes for a day off collided when we pulled into the parking lot with 4 minutes to spare.  The wails from the back seat started low and increased in intensity as I moved around the car to help her out of the car seat.  She immediately clung to my leg, trying to drag me away from the day care.  I murmured reassurances as I crab walked in a crouch with a crying 3 year old conjoined to my leg.  We made it to the sign in desk with 30 seconds to spare.

The front desk attendant admonished me about timeliness as Ashlynn started walked toward her class with the speed of a death row inmate walking to her final destination.  I watched her go with a sense of epic grandparent fail.  It dissipated when Ashlynn turned and called out in a joyful voice, You’re picking me up after school and we’re going swimming today.  Right, Gaga?  Right?




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Christmas in July

The first holidays after I lost my mother were tough.  I realized there wasn’t any “over the river and through the woods” to grandma’s house anymore.   I was the grown up now.  Such a weird feeling.

Hard as that was, it didn’t compare to the first holidays after my son died.  2009 was the year that I had to call in sick not because of illness but because of grief.  It was too much on some days to put on the face and pretend like life was normal.   Holidays and anniversaries were death by 1,000 cuts.

The grief was offset by joy when I spent time with my grand-daughters; when GE announced that she was pregnant with my first grand-son; when she asked if she could honor her brother by scheduling her C-section delivery on December 7, his birthday.  Welcoming his nephew was a beautiful way to celebrate Jack’s birthday.

Jack's Christmas Eve message

Jack’s Christmas Eve 2005 message

At GE’s house after the birth, I wondered how to keep Jack in our Christmas.  He was so ready to celebrate that his absence stabbed my heart.

I read about folks who set a place at the table for their loved one or gave gifts away in their name.  That sounded good, but it didn’t fit.  There was no comfort on that night as I sat in GE’s house reflecting on Travis’ birth, Jack’s death.

Christmas 2009 card

Sketching has always been my favorite distraction.  As I thought, I sketched a little anime drawing of Jack with a Santa hat.  I added a sketch of his cat Ginger who died 10 months after Jack’s death.  That’s when I decided to draw my own Christmas card with Jack’s picture on it.  As I drew, I talked to Jack, telling him about his nephew and his nieces.

It felt like the right thing to do.  It felt like the best way I could keep my child in our holiday.

Each year since 2009 I go to the Hallmark store just in case I can’t draw a card,  but I get an inspiration and the card comes together.   It’s a blessing to sit quietly, talk to Jack, and draw.

Christmas 2010

We lost Jack’s dog, Jewel, in 2010. I could see his 9-year-old face in 1997 when he asked John and me if he could keep her:  “They are selling her for free!”  After he died, she waited at the front door for him to get home.  I added her to the Christmas card as Max from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Christmas 2011



In 2011, I spent a few hours in the ER waiting for a friend to see a doctor and listening to “Little Drummer Boy” on continuous loop.




Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

Over Thanksgiving holiday 2012, I watched The Muppets Christmas Carol.  It was a holiday favorite for Jack and me.  (” Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat!”)  So I sketched Jack as Ebenezer Scrooge.






Christmas 2013

Bob and I started our  home remodel in 2013 and I found some of his poems.  Remembering his light-hearted spirit, his silliness, his resilience, I drew him as an elf.






Christmas 2014

Christmas 2014

Over Thanksgiving 2014, a friend of Jack’s sent me some photos of Jack.  Just looking at his laughing face made me teary.  All I could do was draw him as he looked in the pictures adding Jewel and Ginger.







Christmas 2015

And in 2015, after re-reading Eragon, a book Jack and I read together, I sketched him on a dragon.





The inspiration comes when I sit with my sketch pad and pencil.  So far, it always comes together.  It sounds silly, but it’s my son’s legacy to me.  Bob’s little cousin Makayla loves drawing.  When she and her family visited this month, she confessed that she was shy about showing her drawings to people.  I told her that I am always uncomfortable about my art, but I lose the self-consciousness when I am drawing those cards.  It’s not about me.  It’s about that my crazy-head, my son Jack.




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3 year notice

There’s a commercial for State Farm where an employee gives her 15 year notice.  “Well, I better schedule your exit interview,” sighs the boss.  “Fifteen years goes by quickly.”

Last year, I started training my replacement at the office.  Max’s nephew, out of college and looking for a job, came to work.  Max asked what I thought about him working for us in the office.  I gave my best fake smile and said I thought it would be a great idea. And I did. Sort of.

On the one hand, I loved the idea of having back-up.  A second set of eyes is nice.  My two bosses are all about work; there’s nobody better than they are.  They aren’t much on paperwork.  With nobody to double-check my work, I worry about the probability that I’ll make a serious error and cost them money.  In time, I hoped that Sobrino could check my work as I can check his.

I worry about dying. Not the act of dying.  I concede that I’m mortal.  Still holding out hope for immortality, but the evidence is leaning toward my having a “Best by —-” shelf life.

I fret about how the fellows will get along if I die at the estimating desk. It isn’t that I am indispensable.  I am not.  There are plenty of other estimators, most of them much more educated and more competent than I.  The good ones are working; so are the fair and not so good.  Like I can control from beyond the grave, I have a list of people who Max CANNOT hire no matter what under penalty of haunting.

In a few months, Sobrino could discern the good from the bad.  He saw the paperwork that should go with every bid. He understood that plugging in numbers, guessing the cost isn’t acceptable in a bid.  It’s ok for a seat-of-the-pants-don’t-hold-me-to-it estimate.  But not for a real bid; every number on a bid has some rational.  The rational might be flawed, but he needs to think through the pricing and not grab a number out of his ear.

With luck, Sobrino and I will work together for a few years before I retire.  I wasn’t worth what my boss paid me the first few years I worked as an estimator; bad judgement makes good experience.  And I got plenty good experience at the expense of my first, and maybe my second, bosses.

My trainee is truly an associate after a year of working together; I enjoy the companionship of collaborating on a bid.  Despite the 40 years difference in our ages, there’s a commonality.  He’s joined the Royal Order of Insane Construction Estimators.

dog-cat-and-egoThat’s all on the plus side.

On the down side, I battle this “dead man walking” mentality.  My professional mortality looms large.  They are ready to pull the plug.  No. Life. Support. Gaspchoke.  I  have this sense of decrepitude.

There’s so much ego involved in this process. I never liked co-workers and bosses who were knowledge hoarders, sharing just enough information to make their subordinates dangerous.  It wasn’t in the nature of the men who trained me so I sure don’t want it to be part of my nature as I train Sobrino.  I want him to know what I know, what I’ve learned over the past 30+years, all the hard fought knowledge that’s kept me working and supported since GE was a little girl.

I’m the aggregate of Roy, Charlie, Spec, Tharel, John, and Gary.  Ghost voices remind me to slow down just like I remind Sobrino to break the job into parts, think it through, ask questions, be confident that he can do the work.

And I am not confidant that I will want to move on when the time comes.   GE has said she was sure that working until death was my retirement plan.  This has been my life’s work, but I don’t want to die at the drafting table finishing a bid.  I’ve known a couple of estimators who did just that.  Unfortunately, it was literally.  (For sale:  One drafting table.)


“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” (Kahlil Gibran)

My best friend and I were talking about taking care of her 90-year-old mother in law.  She said that it’s a little uncomfortable:  we are approaching our beginning of the end.  It’s uncomfortable to see what might be, to know that we might not have prepared well enough to have choices.  I wrote uncomfortable.  Should have said terrifying.

Ahh. One more of those dang things I can’t control.













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Harsh reality

Hope is that thing that looks harsh reality in the eye, recognizes it for what it is, and still believes that everything is working toward a satisfying and glorious conclusion because God has said so with an eternal “Yes!”    Jim McGuiggan

I spent Thanksgiving in the middle of the Sabine National Forest. The foliage was dense and not familiar in the way that Duval County is. Not one cactus in the areas around Toledo Bend Reservoir. Southwest Texas has plenty of thorns. And snakes. I’d never heard of snake boots until Bob started hunting out there.

There are plenty of snakes in southeast Texas, too, but it was just chilly enough for them to be languid and not so excited about an old woman clomping around in hunter orange.  Not the best fashion statement but required vestments in the wildlife management areas during hunting season.

IMG_2030I spent more time reflecting as I sat in the deer blind than I would have if I’d joined GE and family for T’giving celebration.  I’ve learned that silence contains so much more than sound.  When my son Jack died, the voices in my head screamed, ranted, and sobbed for hours at a time.  I tried to drown them out with activity and with noise.  It didn’t work.  My best friend took me to a centering prayer meeting, and in the silence of meditation, I found peace.  Funny how the quiet subdues the agitation of my soul.

Today would be Jack’s 27th birthday.  I’ve gone through 6 birthdays since he died.  The first wasn’t the hardest.  Jack’s nephew shares his birthday so I spent the day at the hospital with GE and Jonathan.  I spent much of the time threatening God if GE and the baby weren’t perfect.  Everything went well.  Not because God cowered under the wrath of Margaret, but because things were always going to go ok.  New baby excitement exhausted me and I was all over the emotional map.

MediumPic634008974026530000I find myself following a family tradition on each of his post death birthdays, tracking what we were doing in the 24 hours before his arrival.  I know my sisters’ birth stories as I know my own; our mother would detail them as the time of birth got closer.  (Do you know what we were doing XX years ago?  Your father and I were waiting for our little girl…)  I subjected my children to the same nativity trail.

I did the same thing riding with Bob to fill the feeders in Freer.  In my mind, of course.  Thinking of GE’s pure joy at the thought of meeting her new brother.  Remembering, remembering, remembering.  It’s kind of like pressing on a bruise sometimes.  Other times it’s like ripping out stitches with my bare hands.  It’s somewhere in between this year.

Pre-sobriety, I lived my life observing and acting appropriately.  I was my personal Deus ex machina, prepared to pull myself out emotionally when the going got muddled.  Walking through grief has taught me to live in the moment, accept things as they come, the good and the bad.  I’ve learned that I can’t rely on my emotions.  The damn feelings betray me.  And I’ve learned that it’s ok when they do.

I’ve also learned to rely on God.  My concept of God.  I love God like I love a best friend.  I will never believe that God sent me my son’s death as a lesson, a punishment, a “blessing in disguise.”  It is what it is: a terrible loss.   It cannot be explained to me as God’s will.  That I endure and love and live following my son’s death is God’s mercy.





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It ain’t kneesy

Bob hurt his knee on New Year’s Eve while hunting.  His right foot got caught on a root and his left leg went sideways.  Possibly a torn meniscus, said the minor emergency doc.  Go see a specialist if you are still in pain after a week or so.  The good news, said the specialist a week later, is that the bones are fine.  How about an MRI to see if there’s any other damage?

A torn meniscus is pretty common-about 3 million a year.  Age groups 19-40 and 41-60 are tied for most affected.

A torn meniscus is pretty common-about 3 million a year. Age groups 19-40 and 41-60 are tied for most affected.

$500+ out-of-pocket later, the diagnosis was a tear in the meniscus on the left knee.  It can heal after 4-6 weeks if the tear is small.  Sometimes, arthroscopic surgery repairs the tear.  Unfortunately, our insurance wouldn’t pay for surgery unless Bob attempted to strengthen his knee through physical therapy.  Three times a week for 4 weeks is what the doctor prescribed.

Physical therapy places are not user-friendly.  No late night hours.  No weekends.  Bob requested early release from work 3 days a week for 4 weeks.  His work put him on short-term disability until his knee could be healed or repaired.

After a week of not working and PT, Bob decided it would be a good time to have an abdominal hernia repaired.  (Well, since you aren’t doing anything anyway.)  It took longer for our family doctor to set up an appointment than it did for the surgeon to get Bob on the surgery schedule.

Last Wednesday, the hernia got repaired.  We got home Thursday after an overnight at the hospital.  And Bob got me for a nurse.

As a child, I thought I could be a nurse.  Even then, my ego winced at having to take orders from a doctor.  Maybe a doctor?  When I discovered my inability to restrain the gag reflex at the sound, smell, or sight of bodily emissions, I knew that I would never be a doctor or a nurse.

After hugging Bob too hard after surgery and dropping to my knees, crushing his toes when I was trying to help him sock his feet, I slowed down and tried to channel a gentle caregiver.  The surgeon came to check Bob’s incision, pointing out the 2 drain tubes on each side of his abdomen with tomato bisque colored fluid accumulating in plastic bottles that dangled like tassels on each side.  (Aren’t you taking those out?)  (Oh, no.  We’ll take the tubes out Monday.)

In the meantime, he told me to empty the drain bottles, measure and record the contents, and immediately report darkening of color or change in odor to his office.  I did try to empty the drain bottles, but Bob took them away when I started gagging.  (It’s okay, baby.  I can do it myself.)

Bob with his new nurse.  She hissed at me when I got too close.

Bob with his new nurse. She hissed at me when I got too close.

Sunday morning Bob woke me to show me his abdomen which was angry red and blistered under the tape.  The blisters were in various stages of weeping and smelled like rotting flesh.  We called the doctor’s office and were advised to remove the tape and just leave the area uncovered.  (It sounds like you have an allergy to tape.) 

Bob started micro-ripping the tape off and I got gaggy.  Let me help, I volunteered, quickly ripping the tape off.  With tears in his eyes, Bob gasped, “It’s okay, baby.  I. can. do. it. myself.”

I think I’m losing credibility as a home health care provider.

Bob goes to the ortho doc tomorrow to schedule surgery on his knee.  (One surgery down.  One to go!) 


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