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Death, Regret, Murder, and Medical Equipment

Today’s guest post is written Caleb Cook:

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged my hometown of Pass Christian, MS I was left with next to nothing. My belongings were either swept into the back bay near Bay St. Louis, or left soaked with only what could be described as a toxic gumbo of mold, brackish water, and sewage.  The few things I had left were a few books of poetry and some CD’s, the stuff that would fit into a 98 Kia Sephia.

I was 18, fresh out of graduating high school and only a few weeks into my freshmen year of college when Hurricane Katrina hit. With the feelings of summer still in the air I made the rushed decision to take the destruction of my life and turn it into a way out. I needed money and an apartment, my parents and siblings were living in Florida temporary. So without guidance I hastily quit school and decided to find work. The odd jobs were relentless, back breaking in fact, like helping gut houses out in my town to where there was nothing left but a solid shell, everything gone except wood. Others included laying tile or landscaping; stuff I admittedly wasn’t in love with doing.

Soon thereafter, I was offered the opportunity to work for a DME company delivering Durable Medical Equipment from a friend who had lost everything just as I had done. The job was simple, I was to deliver the equipment to homes and hospitals. The equipment ranged from hospital beds, bed side commodes, oxygen and the related stuff. I was to also show the patients how to use the equipment after I assembled it all. My deliveries took me all over South Mississippi into patients homes and nursing homes. I dealt daily with hospice patients, people with a mere hours left to live, their families, and a vast array of folks from every walk of life.

One delivery stands out more than any of them in my mind. It was early fall almost dusk, when I got the ticket to fix a hospital bed and move it from one room to the next. The delivery was the last one of a long ass day, a Friday to be exact. I could practically taste the freedom of the weekend. This particular delivery would offer a challenge I was getting used to: It was in a FEMA trailer, at a lot off of I-10 in Gulfport. These trailers were small and often challenging maneuvering bulky equipment around. Needless to say I was ready for this problem and expected to be in and out.

I knocked on the door and a polite elderly lady answered, the patient was her husband, a senior with terminal brain cancer. He was sitting in a wheelchair in front of the TV asleep. She proceeded to show me the room and I began the process of disassembling the bed. I was sweating as it was hot inside the trailer as was most homes I visited. The bed was taken apart with ease and soon I was setting it back up in the adjacent room. It was then I hear a big loud THUD. The women begans crying “Help Me!” I immediately run into the living room to find the patient on the floor. The women pleading for my response, my help.

Except I, by law, could not under any circumstance touch the patient. Hypothetically if I did help, and the patient was to die I could be arrested, sued or fired. This was explained to me countless times during my job orientation months prior. So I did what any 18 year old would do, I ran. I ran outside and into the safety of my work van. I called my boss, who we will name Ralph. Ralph proceeded to tell me to get the signature for delivery and GET OUT of there. He would call the hospice nurse in charge of the patient or an EMT. His voice was of concern, but also nervousness for me his youngest delivery driver ever. I was scared and morally confused about what I should do.

I would like to say I gave in to the pleads and cries by offering my hand of help. However I can not say I manned up because I was still a boy trapped in this strange land between Hurricane Katrina destruction,  medical equipment, hospice, death, and mostly fear. I left the FEMA trailer and never looked back. As I returned to the warehouse, Ralph my boss only offered a simple “Are you okay?” and that was that.

6 months later I was home from work watching the local nightly news when a photo of this couple  flashed on my TV. They had been murdered in cold blood and the killers were arrested soon after. They were looking for money, one was a neighbor in the park who occasionally took care of the man.  My heart sank and then shattered into a million pieces. All I could think of was how I left that couple months prior. How she was crying, and pleading with no physical strength to lift him off that cold, dank, FEMA trailer floor. I left somebody when they were in need and at the end of their life. I began to cry, the cry only a kid of  now 19 can cry when his heart is broken. My body still aches with regret.

The next day at work I was given the ticket from FEMA to pick up our equipment from the crime scene so they can move the FEMA trailer out of the park. This pick up would alter me and change me from a boy to a man. At about 11am  on a cloudy February day I pulled into the park off of I-10.  I had to pick up the bed, oxygen, commode, wheelchair,  and a shower chair. The same wheelchair the man fell out of and onto the floor. I felt, as if in this moment Deja Vu and Karma were real. I felt as if God was playing a cruel trick on me by making me relive my regret.

I assumed the equipment would be outside the trailer waiting, and that a clean up crew would have already cleaned the trailer. I never in a million years would have thought I would be going inside this place. The equipment was not outside, it was still inside and I discovered this as I was greeted by a FEMA official smoking a cigarette near the entrance of a door. The glass on the door had been knocked out and police tape was blocking the entrance.

“This is my first time inside,” the FEMA official declared. With a solemn look on her face. I said “It’s my second.” She looked confused.

I realized the reason she was smoking was because it was to cover the smell, she explained to me that the bodies were discovered about 6 days after they were murdered. She also explained that in the police reports she received, that the killers “Not only murdered the couple, but turned the heater on to its maximum temp, as well as turning on the oven and burners. They did this in hopes of killing the dog, and at this point killing the bedridden husband from heat exhaustion.”

She opened the trailer with a set of shiny jangling keys, which I noticed had a smiley keychain  on it. The smell instantly hit my nostrils, it was a smell that almost a decade later I still smell from time to time like a phantom of harshness, or the God of Regret punching me in the face. There was a pull of blood and what I assumed was coagulated yellow bile hardened on the floor a mere foot from the door. That was the spot she died. She was shot to death with, an unknown to me, amount of bullets. There were bullet holes in the recliner where she was sitting when she was killed. The living room trashed, with furniture overturned and obviously ransacked. There were bloody footsteps leading into the kitchen before they trailed off down the narrow hall. Around the oven there was plastic cooking spoons partially melted from the heat.

His room was basically untouched from the way I left it that day months ago. There was no sign of struggle or anything just the makings of a robbery gone bad. The pick up of the equipment was without trouble, I got in and got out. Filled with sadness, and regret I finished the order in a half an hour. After it was all said and done the FEMA official closed the door and locked it. She explained that they would come to pick up the trailer in a few days and maybe burn it but she wasn’t sure. She offered me a cigarette, I accepted. Then she drove away without saying a word, never knowing my story of guilt and regret with this couple. I took a drag of the cigarette and immediately vomited on my boots.

I’m  28 years old now and I often think about the delivery, the couple, the murder and that trailer. I replay those scenes in my head like a movie, or maybe it’s just me trying to keep their ghost alive, like a family members who passed away suddenly.  I like to say I have no regrets in life, but that would be a lie.

*****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caleb Cook currently resides in Birmingham, AL and is the author of 4 books of poetry including “Troubleshooting for the Modern Soul” and “The World All Strung Out”. When he isn’t writing he is a father, husband, and chef.

My Thoughts on the Transgender Woman Presented as a Man at Her Funeral

Jennifer

As a preface, let me say that I’m thankful to have transgender friends, who have graciously helped my vocab and have helped me to become more sensitive to the trans community.  And yet, I know I still have things to learn; so forgive me if I misstep in any of my verbiage.

Here’s the story from the Miami Herald:

Jennifer Gable, an Idaho customer service coordinator for Wells Fargo, died suddenly Oct. 9 on the job at age 32. An aneurysm, according to stunned friends.

Just as shocking, they say, when they went to Gable’s funeral in Twin Falls, Idaho, and saw her in an open casket — hair cut short, dressed in a suit and presented as a man.

Gable was transgender, born Geoffrey, but living the past few years as Jennifer

The simple tragedy of the story is this: Jennifer died suddenly at an age when she had probably never thought to assign the power of her funeral arrangements to an entrusted friend (something she could have done in Idaho).  And because she didn’t designate a person to arrange her funeral, it fell to her legal next-of-kin; which, in this case was her parents.

The fact that her parents dressed Jennifer as a man and used the masculine pronoun in the obituary, as well as Jennifer’s previous name “Geoffrey” in the obituary shows that her parents couldn’t accept Jennifer; they wanted Geoffrey.

Whether you choose to accept Jennifer as a transgender female or not, you will probably agree that there’s something wrong with her parents presenting her as a man in death.  The problem is this: our death-style should reflect our life-style.  In fact, you could say that the deceased is honored when the death-style reflects the life-style.

And when Jennifer’s parents attempt to hijack Jennifer’s narrative and determine the death style based off their wishes (and not hers), this act is dishonorable to Jennifer’s life.

These kinds of struggles happen: the legal next-of-kin doesn’t agree with the deceased’s lifestyle and finds themselves in this dilemma: “Do I honor the deceased in death?  Or, do I recreate the narrative to something I’m more comfortable with?”

Whether it be religious disagreement, political disagreement, lifestyle disagreement or the kind of disagreement that Jennifer’s parents had, I think we should see the integrity in honor.

 

legacy geoffrey

Silent Wishes: On Hoping for a Cure

Today’s guest post is written by Heidi Evans:

Most children wish for a pony, or maybe a trip to Disney World when they blow out their birthday candles. For as long as I can remember, on my birthday I would wish for a cure. A cure that would keep my father around for my birthday the next year.

My father had cancer my entire life. I spent so many years simply hoping and wishing that one day I would wake up, and my father would be cured. No more doctors’ appointments, no more chemotherapy, no more cancer. That was my wish every single day, but that wish was especially important when I blew out my birthday candles. For some reason it seemed more logical in my innocent mind that if a cure were to happen, it would be more probable on my birthday. I never told anyone of my wish, because everyone knows that as soon as you tell people what you wished for, it never comes true.

This year will be different. This year I will not wish for a cure. This year, I will blow my 21 candles out, and I will wish for something completely different. I will wish that heaven is just as magical as it is in my dreams. I will wish that my father’s pain is long gone, and that he gets to sleep on clouds and eat as many marshmallows as he pleases. That has always been my child-like idea of what heaven is like.

Most people who are diagnosed with cancer spend at least a little bit of their time feeling sad, or hopeless. I was blessed to spend my entire life watching my father handle his diagnoses with grace. I never once heard him complain, and never once saw his fight to live flicker. We spent our 20 years together building memories that I will treasure forever.

In August of 2014 the doctors told my father that there was not much else that they could do in order to treat his cancer. They encouraged the idea that he spend his last few months making end-of-life decisions. That doctor’s appointment was on a Tuesday. My father passed away the very next Sunday. I can remember sitting on the bench in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. My father had just received the news. He sat next to me while I cried, and promised me that we would all be okay. He could not have been more right about that.

The doctor had specifically stated that my father had MONTHS not WEEKS left to live. There was a conversation that I wanted to have with my father, but I struggled with when to bring it up. I did not want my father to think that I had given up hope. The day after the appointment we were sitting in the living room together. I looked at him and bluntly said, “Daddy, are you scared?” My father looked up at me and without hesitation said, “I am not scared of death. I am scared to leave you guys.” That was my father, always taking care of his girls, even until the very end. My next statement was the one I had been thinking about for months. I had read the articles, and heard the stories, about when people send signs to their loved ones from the other side. I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes, and I embraced them and told my father that when he got to heaven, I needed him to send me a sign to let me know that he was okay. Together we decided on the cardinal.

When I was a little girl my father would wait for the school bus with me. Every few days a cardinal would show up in the tree outside our front door. Every time my father saw it he would get insanely excited and holler at me to notice its beautiful red feathers. For some reason that memory always stuck out in my mind. Even as a grouchy teenager, my father would point out the cardinal and I would smile. My father agreed that when he got to heaven he would send me a cardinal if the opportunity arose. I never told anyone about the conversation that we had. In the same sense as a birthday wish, I needed to keep our agreement a secret in order for it to come true.

Not even a week later, my father was gone. He passed away peacefully in his sleep. If there is anyone in the world that did not deserve to suffer, it was my father. My mother, sister, and I made the funeral arrangements together. Those few days remain a whirlwind in my mind. The world lost a great man, and I lost the best dad the world had to offer. The day of the funeral was as perfect as it could have been, considering the circumstances. The weather was uncharacteristically cool for the month of August. We showed up to the church and greeted our friends and family. The minor details remain a blur in memory. I had so many emotions raging through me, I was not quite sure how to feel. My mother, my sister, and I walked into the chapel as our friends and family stood around us. We were a team. We were minus one of our players, but a team nonetheless. We were his girls. We walked to our seats, and embraced the tears that were inevitable. As I took my seat, I noticed all of the beautiful flowers that people had sent in honor of my father’s life. Out of probably 20 arrangements, the one that was placed directly in front my seat held a small, decorative cardinal. I was at a loss for words. On this incredibly important day, my father took the opportunity to tell me that he was okay, and that he was with me. I tearfully accepted his message, and I let a smile creep across my face for the first time in what felt like forever.

I feel my father all around me, I do not need to see a cardinal to know that he is with me always. In that moment when I step outside, and the wind sweeps my hair off of my neck, my father is there. When I am walking to my car, and I take a moment to look at the stars, my father is there. And this year when I blow out my 21 candles, my father will be there. My innocent, child-like birthday wish finally came true. My father will be at every one of my birthdays for the rest of my life. This year I do not have to wish for a miracle, because I was already given one.

*****

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heidi Evans is a senior living in Oklahoma City, pursuing her bachelors degree in Funeral Service. She works in the Funeral Service industry and plans to be a part of the changes making their way through the death care industry in the coming years. 

10 Terrifying Things About Funeral Homes You Didn’t Know: A Response

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© 2006 Derrick Tyson, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Answers.com published an article entitled “10 Terrifying Things About Funeral Homes You Didn’t Know”.  Answers.com tries to provide answers to the random questions of the internet, but what they come up with in this article is something slightly below Buzzfeed fodder.

Although I appreciate attempts to talk about death and funerals, it’s nice when the facts are right.  And many of Answers.com “10 Terrifying Things” are a stretch.

Here’s their “10 Terrifying Things” and my responses.

1.  Death is Big Business:  Pardon the pun, but funeral homes make a killing. The caskets in funeral homes are set up to where the grieving family members see the most expensive caskets. It’s a billion dollar industry, and bigger funeral service providers will attempt to acquire every aspect of the business, such as florists and tombstone engravers.

Paint in broad strokes much?

Some funeral homes are money hungry.  Yes.  I think Jessica Mitford made this point back in the 1970s.   But — something that goes unnoticed by many is that many funeral homes are service oriented.  Some funeral homes make the most expensive caskets most prominent and other funeral homes — like ours — have our least expensive casket set up as the most prominent.  There are incredibly bad funeral homes and incredible good ones (and a whole variety of variations in between).  And the good ones usually don’t make “a killing”.

And yes, the corporate funeral homes are attempting to acquire every aspect of the industry; and as corporations, they have shareholders; and with those shareholders, it’s all about the bottomline.  And when it’s about the bottomline, you and your family become a means to an end.

2.  They Take Advantage:  People in grief are extremely vulnerable, and some funeral service providers are not above taking advantage of that. A funeral director can easily steer families in the direction of more expensive flowers or coffins. At the time, it seems like a showy, elaborate funeral is the only way to honor the deceased.

For those of us funeral directors who are ultimately concerned about service, the idea that we’re “taking advantage” of our customers frankly pisses us off.

It’s like assuming that all Catholic priests are pedophiles.

Or that all Matthew McConaughey movies involve shirt removal (apparently he keeps his shirt on in Interstellar)

Answers.com is making a blanket statement that simply doesn’t cover us all.  In fact, it’s these blanket statements like this that incite some anger in those of us who find joy in helping those in their greatest hour of need and confusion.  For the good funeral directors, our joy is helping you, not exploiting you.

And while I can say that many — if not most — in this industry exist for service, there is the dark side — those few — that do as Answers.com describes.

3.  Are You Dead or Just Happy to See Me?  When the body begins to decompose, certain areas known to have heavy concentrations of bacteria often swell to more than twice their normal size. Undertakers have to work fast to drain the bodies of all fluids, and they pack all of the body’s openings with cotton to prevent leakage.

If you want embalming, then yes, we do train the body’s fluids.  And we usually pack the nose with cotton to keep any liquids from running down the face during a viewing.

4.  Broken Parts: Funeral home employees are masters in the art of restoration. They often have to make a body presentable for viewing, despite how the person died. Sometimes, it’s as simple as using cosmetics to cover minor scrapes or bruises, but other times, morticians have to stitch bodies back together.

Answers.com got this right.  Although I’m not sure this qualifies as “terrifying”.  Bwahahaha.  I’ll put makeup on your face.  Bwahahah.  Let me trim your beard.  Look at me, I’m a master of restoration and I’m TERRIFYING.

5.  Embalming: Everyone knows that embalming is the process of removing all the fluids from a body and replacing them with preservatives. What happens to all those fluids from the body? They go right into the public sewage system. That’s what’s really running through your pipes.

Right again, but when you think about the other things that get poured down the drawn (various chemicals), it’s not entirely terrifying.

6.  The Eyes Have It: A person’s eyes are not usually removed from the body when its embalmed. They do start to flatten out, so morticians usually place a cap underneath the eyelid so that it still looks curved, or they’ll re-fill the eye to its normal size.

ZZZZZzzzzzz.  Eye caps.  Yes, we use eye caps.  No, we don’t remove eyes.

7.  They May Not Be Doing Their Jobs: In 2002, it was discovered that the Tri-State Crematory had been scattering the bodies rather than properly cremating them. Over 300 hundred bodies were discovered on the crematory’s property. It was revealed that the crematory had been giving the families concrete dust instead of ashes. Some of the bodies were never identified due to body decomposition.

Sadly, this one is true.  Tri-State Crematory did do just as they say.

8.  Please Wait Outside: When funeral directors have to go into someone’s home to retrieve a body, they are often in a hurry. The grieving family naturally wants time to say goodbye, but family members can hinder the work of funeral directors.

If you EVER feel any type of pressure from a funeral home or funeral director FIRE THEM!  Seriously, just fire them.  The fact is that your mind is already clouded by grief and the last thing you need in your life is someone trying to push you around.  You just experienced a death in your life.  You need people who will give you the time and space you need, NOT people who want to push you around.

9.  Drops Happen: Sometimes, dropping the body is unavoidable. Removing bodies of overweight people from five-story buildings, for example, can prove to be quite tricky. Hopefully if it happens, it doesn’t occur in the eyes of the family.

Yes, drops do happen.  I’ve handled a few thousand deceased persons and I’ve never dropped one.  But, it might happen.  I hope it doesn’t.

10.  Caskets Don’t Have to Be Expensive: Caskets are where funeral homes make a lot of their money — the average price of a casket is over $1000. However, a nice casket can be bought between $400 – 600. You just have to shop around. A decent service for your loved one doesn’t have to put you in debt.

Casket’s don’t have to be expensive and many funeral homes do mark up their caskets, BUT I’m not sure a “nice” casket can be bought between $400 to $600.

You can buy a pine box for $500 HERE.  But you have to put it together youself.

Walmart actually sells a pretty nice casket for $759.  You can buy it HERE.

Mom: On Mental Illness, Suicide and Grief

 Today’s guest post is written by Bridget Groh:

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Bridget at two years old with her mom.

May 23, 2012.

I will never forget that day as long as I live. I can remember how the air smelled as I walked into my childhood home for the last time believing my mom was alive, I know exactly what I was wearing, what I did with my children that morning. That is probably the most defining moment in most of my family’s’ lives. For years leading up to that day, my immediate family had been a mash of turmoil. The woman who had been our pillar for my whole life came out of brain surgery for a bleed in her right frontal lobe in 2002 as an entirely different person.

Gone was my loving and doting mother, the kind and sensitive spirited woman who my father had married in 1980, the R.N. with a Master’s Degree who opened a brand new hospital as nursing manager. This accomplished woman slowly through ten years’ time became a shell of who she was and eventually morphed into a new person.

Watching someone you love struggle with mental illness is heart-wrenching. My best description of this is like “watching a storm at sea…it whirls and whips and flies….it can see the shore, but it cannot come in…it wants to go further away into the ocean and do less damage , but its tentacles keep it in position…just beyond grasp.” My mother whirled for 10 years. Each time she attempted suicide our family would all race to the hospital just as her stomach was pumped and the respirator was placed or the priest pronounced last rites…for the 5th time. My poor Catholic God-fearing mother who advocated for the medical community, for her whole life could not be “fixed.”

That is not to say we did not try. We tried like HELL! My father spent tens of thousands of dollars on rehabs: rehabs for alcohol abuse combined with brain injury, rehabs just for alcohol abuse, rehabs just for brain injury, and rehabs for mental illness. They all worked… for a little while. However, we as people do not have the tools to combat someone who is so smart they can talk their way out of psych wards due to heightened medical knowledge.

Someone who commits suicide does not see a way out. The best analogy I have heard regarding this is similar to describing someone in a skyscraper trapped in a burning building that jumps. I believe my mom saw no way out and she “jumped.” She knew things were not getting any better. Her behavior was all encompassing of my life, my father, my husband, her sisters…. I believe in my heart she thought there was no way out for her. I don’t know ,even today, if there was. I wish she were here so we could have tried.

Her last two weeks on Earth, she had just “cycled” into a good period. My sister and I plus my husband and kids spent a fabulous mother’s day with her at brunch. I am so grateful for that day and those memories. I consciously told myself to take pictures that day, I knew the end was coming…but I couldn’t bring myself to do so, I really did not want to believe she would not beat her demons. I wanted to take pictures in July at my son’s first birthday, and Halloween and Christmas….

So May 22, no one could reach my mom after 9pm. We now believe she committed suicide sometime in the night. It was cold and dark. She hated both things. The amount of self-hatred she had still overwhelms me. I took my children to the doctor the next morning. I went to lunch and had a good time with my girlfriend and her kids. On the way home, I knew someone needed to check her. I called my dad who I picked up (he had moved out by this point), he jumped in my car and I told him to just drop me and as soon as I found her, he could come back.

The house was locked up tight. I had to get in through the basement garage.

Inside, silence awaited me. I knew something was very wrong.

I checked her bed which was empty.

The living room had her diet coke on the coffee table with the TV on.

The dogs were out of food and water, which on her worst day was unlike her.

I went out to the back deck and found her…floating upside in my childhood family pool. After screaming and calling 911, everything becomes a blur. The operator tried to coax me to get her out of the pool, I knew there was nothing I could do at that point. No one who is living even a little bit floats like that. That is one image I will never, ever un-see. Obviously, anyone in the funeral profession knows that state police came and investigated and the medical examiner was called in. Her official autopsy report ruled her death as suicide by drowning.

We went through the motions and planned a funeral. I suppose I must have been there, I don’t really remember much. I read her eulogy. We had a gathering after with an Irish band playing. She would have loved it.

Through my whole life while my mom was living, I struggled to find my place in life. I went from degree to degree changing from nursing to teaching secondary education and finally to accounting, which is the field where I worked when she died. My mom was cremated, we did not bury her for six months after her death. At her cremains burial, I was chatting with the funeral director who was looking for someone to help balance his checkbook. I offered to help. That was two and half years ago. I’ll be done my degree in mortuary science in May and sit for my board in June. I like to look at the change in careers as my mother’s final gift. I know that I can help families during their times of heartache and sorrow because I can literally relate. I know the importance of having someone guide you and be supportive.

Since my mom’s death, our family has also banned together to create a non-profit organization “Brake the Silence” which is aimed to break the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. I will not let my mother‘s death be in vain. In life, she helped others. She will help others in death. Through her story, awareness is brought out.

It is easy to ignore mental illness; it is not as in your face as many other illnesses. Addiction is also easily ignored. But when you hear of the staggering numbers of suicides as direct results of both of these, you have to stop and think. Are we doing enough?

My mom’s legacy lives on through her girls and her grandsons. I don’t harbor any anger towards her. I just miss her.

And, as a final note, and her favorite song by Led Zeppelin says:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

*****

About the author:  I, Bridget, am 31, married, with four little boys (10, 8, 5, & 3).  I’ve lived in Central MA my whole life. I have a Bachelors Degree in history.  I really thought I was going to teach high school. I am currently employed at a funeral home.  I’ve been here for a little over two years. I am also in school through distance learning at the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service in Houston, Texas and I will be done in May! YAY! I love my job so far and I cannot wait to be fully licensed in June.

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