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CJM Press
Phoenix, AZ

Breathing Again
… thoughts on life after loss
Copyright 2018 by Cathy Marley

ISBN: 978-0-9990518-2-5

All rights reserved. No part of this book shall be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, magnetic, photographic including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher or author. No patent liability is assumed with respect to the use of the information contained herein. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Reviewers may quote passages for use in periodicals, newspapers, or broadcasts provided credit is given to Breathing Again by Cathy Marley. Contact: Cathy Marley at

This is a work of non-fiction and names have been used with permission.

Cover photography by Cathy Marley
Content photography © Cathy Marley except where noted
Author photo: Leanna McDonald,

6 Principles of From Grief to Peace © From Grief to Peace, LLC

Smashwords Edition License Notes
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Also by Cathy Marley

Peeking Over the Edge … views from life’s middle, 2006

Love in Bloom with Women Writers of the Desert, 2005

For Norm, my soul mate, my love, my joy,
the center of my world.


For Dale and Anita,
precious son and beloved soul sister.
We will meet again.


Writing is of necessity a solitary endeavor. But, as any author will tell you, no book is ever created in a vacuum. The path from three women starting a book club to my publishing Breathing Again was a long one—filled with education, inspiration, compassion, and yes, sometimes even tears. Grief is not an easy topic to write about, and I am convinced Breathing Again would never have been written without the inspiration, support, and input from some of the strongest, most resilient people I know.

As always, I thank my wonderful husband Norm, whose faith in me has never wavered. With every word I wrote here, I became ever more grateful to have had you in my life for over forty years. Every moment I spent learning from others what it means to truly grieve left me praying I would be granted many more years with you and never have to know the pain of living without you or those three incredible human beings, David, Dale, and Dennie, who I have been privileged to call “my” children.

Sadly, before I could finish this book, I learned firsthand more than I ever wanted to know about consuming grief and its many side effects when our precious son, Dale, succumbed to cancer a scant five months after diagnosis. It was a loss I neither expected nor wanted to know. Fortunately, most of Breathing Again was written before he died. In writing it, I had gained precious insights on grief from others and had incorporated them here. What I had learned helped me through that soul-numbing time as I had come to understand that what I was experiencing was normal and to be expected. Once I was able to return to writing, I felt our son’s spiritual presence guiding me to its completion. Thank you, Dale.

So much of what I have learned about grief, I learned from two amazing and inspiring women, my dear friends and soul sisters, Joy Collins and Betts McCalla. You shared your pain, your sorrow, and your experiences with me, and I hear your voices echo in the pages here. Many of the stories you voiced over chai tea lattes and coffee at the Barnes and Noble café have found their way into this book. In a sense, what I have written mirrors your path from grief to peace. I send my deepest thanks to you both for all of that and for guiding me through designing, editing, formatting, and publishing Breathing Again.

Finally, to the sisters of my heart, Anita and Elaine, one on this side of the veil, the other waiting to welcome us to the other side when our time comes, I can only say that without your years of love and encouragement, I would never have had the courage to start writing in the first place. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? And the best is yet to come when we are all together again!

Thank you, one and all.

Cathy Marley

Table of Contents



Breathing Again

Chapter 1 – Is This Really Happening?

What Works for You
The Widowed Box
Would You Want to Know?
Get Over It? The Constant Weight of Grief
Oh, I Get by with a Little Help …

Chapter 2 – How You Feel

Walls – Protection or Prison?
I’m Fine
The Ka-thunk
Do I Still Matter?
Touch Me
The Best Laid Plans …
What Grief Is All About
How Do You Grieve?
Birthdays Will Never Be the Same

Chapter 3 – A Helping Hand

The Supportive Role
Surrounded by Widows
What Is Right
How to Help a Mourning Friend
A Soft Place to Fall
The Other Players
Everybody Needs Somebody
Breaching Walls
No Two Ways to Mourn
Honoring Lost Loves
Where Did Everyone Go?

Chapter 4 – Life Changes

It Takes Patience – Grief Has No Timeline
What Gifts Do You Give a Soul Mate Who Is Gone?
A New Normal
You Can Do It … Taking on New Roles
I’ve Got a Guy for That
No More Days

Chapter 5 – Signs/Soul Mate Connections

Look for the Quick Hellos
Grieving Beau
Signs or Coincidence?
The Grandma Book and Messages from Beyond
How Do We Recognize Our Soul Mate?

Chapter 6 – Healing and Finding Peace

Little Things
The Call that Never Comes
Finding Your Way
Climbing Off the Pity Pot
Smoothing the Sharp Edges of Grief
Old Spice for Steve
The Courage to Be Happy
Double the Joy
Comfort Where You Find It
What Happened to Peace?
Choosing Love

Epilogue for Dale

About the Author


During my twenty-five years of trying to help the bereaved on their grief journeys as well as their caregivers, I have come across many wonderful books on grief.

But Cathy Marley’s Breathing Again is indeed special. It touched me deeply, not only because it contains much wisdom about the grief journey, but also because in it, Cathy shares with us some of her most precious and intimate life experiences.

I will be recommending Breathing Again to the many bereaved I encounter as well as their caregivers as the insights Cathy provides are extremely valuable for all of us on all sides of the grief experience.

Well done and thanks, Cathy, for a most wonderful gift.

John Chuchman, CDOS, MA,
Pastoral Bereavement Educator and Companion

• • •

John Chuchman is a man of many facets—pastoral bereavement educator and companion, poet, and author. A gentle soul, he changes lives in the sensitive workshops, seminars, in-service programs, and retreats he regularly offers. And he calms hearts with his wise words in his many books, where he shares his life experiences, spiritual discoveries, frustrations with institutional church, keys to grief healing, as well as his own personal and spiritual growth.

You can reach John, learn more about him, or purchase his books at:



I have been very fortunate in my life that I have not encountered the profound grief that comes with the loss of a soul mate. That does not mean I have not had people I love die. I have. My mother when I was twelve years old, my father much later in my life. A step sister. My closest friend in my twenties. Both of my in-laws and any number of people close to me and to my friends. More recently, my son and my soul sister. But never my soul mate. Thank God.

So, is it any wonder that I never really understood how soul-piercing grief can be for someone who experiences that most profound loss of a soul mate? When I first began meeting with my two friends and fellow writers, Joy Collins and Betts McCalla, we called ourselves a book club in that we read other people’s work. But it was a book club of very short duration. I quickly discovered that what my two friends needed more than anything was a path to heal the intense grief they felt after the deaths of their soul mate husbands. When we first started meeting, those deaths were still unbearably raw for them both. I did not understand it at the time, but some part of me sensed that they needed a safe place to work through their pain. As we talked and bonded, that safe place ultimately became an endeavor called “From Grief to Peace.”

Our goal, we said, was to help others heal their grief and find a measure of peace as they continued on alone in life. We wanted to empower them to overcome that harsh command to “move on” or “get over it.” Along the way, my friends began to heal themselves. I saw them begin accepting that while their loved ones are no longer physically here, my friends could make a new life and incorporate them in that new life—not by forgetting them or making them a thing of the past— but by making them part of a new present.

As for me? I learned more than I ever imagined I would about grief. When we first started, I questioned what I could bring to the table. How could I possibly have anything of benefit to say to people who were grieving so deeply? I had no experience. I did not even know what to say and what not to say in the face of grief. They reassured me that I had more to share than I thought. My role, they said, was to serve as the voice of those outside the grief, the friends who wanted to help but felt helpless. Along the way to finding that voice, I learned what they have experienced, what helped them and what hurt. And in seeing how bereft they were on being separated in this lifetime from the loves of their lives, I learned to treasure every moment of the time I have with those I love. I hope that understanding their grief helps ease my own sorrow when, as it is sure to do one day, it comes my way.

Breathing Again is my small effort to speak to the circle of support that surrounds anyone who is mourning the loss of a soul mate. Here, I hope to help you better understand the pain your friend or loved one is experiencing. But most of all, I hope this book will help you be a better friend at a time when your friendship and love are most sorely needed. Although your friend may not be able to ask for your support, perhaps this book will help you know what you can do even if you are not asked.

6 Principles of From Grief to Peace

1. I will allow myself to grieve my soul mate, knowing that this will be hard.

2. I will understand that I have the right to mourn the loss of my soul mate in my own way.

3. I will acknowledge that my grief has no timeline.

4. I will admit that grief has no rules.

5. I will feel comfortable standing up for myself when others put their expectations on me.

6. When I am stronger, I will pay it forward to help others who are mourning the loss of their soul mate.[1]

© From Grief to Peace, LLC, 2016,, reprinted by permission.

Photo by Cathy Marley

Breathing Again

Grief. Sooner or later, death touches us all. And we grieve. You never know when it will come into your life. And unless your heart and emotions are securely padded with bubble wrap, you will one day feel grief’s icy touch and mourn to the depths of your soul.

The first time I looked grief in the face, I was twelve. In the course of one unforgettable evening, I went from a carefree young girl looking forward to a summer vacation to a withdrawn, grieving daughter preparing to attend my mother’s funeral. I think in some ways, I quit breathing that night. I felt the loss to the depths of my being. But I was not allowed to mourn. I was, after all, just a child. And in those times, everyone believed children could not possibly understand grief. Surely grief is an adult thing. Right? Absolutely not! But I still got the message. And at twelve, I breathed in my sorrow, then held my breath as I carefully encased my emotions in layer after layer of bubble wrap, leaving me numb.

Until very recently, the pain—and yes, anger—that came with my sorrow was still there, protected, intact, unable to reach the essential me. Little did I realize those intense buried feelings of sorrow colored my whole life and kept me from truly feeling anything, or even taking a deep breath.

Almost sixty years later, I am just now learning what it really means to experience a loss of someone you love deeply and to mourn that loss. In all this time, I have managed to remain untouched in the face of death. Relatives and friends have transitioned but because of those bubble-wrapped emotions, I felt little beyond a brief regret that I would never see that person again. And then I went on with my life as though nothing had happened.

But the inevitability of death was waiting in the wings for me to start feeling something. Sure enough, it happened. Thankfully, by then I was better prepared to acknowledge my feelings and understand them as grief. It started with two new friends.

I first met Betts and Joy when we were all members of the same writers’ group. I met both of their husbands, but while they were married, we never really tried to become close. That started to shift when Betts’s husband Jerry passed away. I tried my best to let her know how sorry I was for that loss, although I don’t think I was very successful. The best I could do was to meet her for a lunchtime playdate for our dogs. I had no idea of the value that she placed on my visit. To me, that date was more about the dogs than it was about helping a friend who was grieving. Her grief could not penetrate the layers of my personal bubble wrap, so I could not see how shattered she was. I was sympathetic but not particularly empathetic.

And then Joy’s husband John died suddenly. Again, I managed to keep my feelings hovering somewhere above her grief. I don’t know if I was much help to her, but during one long lunch shortly after his death, I began to see glimmerings of how deeply she was mourning. All I remember doing during that lunch was to let her talk as much as she needed, to listen to her, and to cry with her. Her grief touched something in me, and her loss on top of Betts’s loss began to burrow below the layers of bubble wrap.

Some months later, I had what I thought was a brilliant (albeit somewhat self-serving) idea. I wanted to start a book club. I thought of both Joy and Betts mainly because I thought we might enjoy the same books and have some intelligent discussions about them. For them, I think it was a hand of friendship extending into a season of sorrow, but grief and healing never crossed my mind.

Still, the Universe had other ideas. We soon found ourselves talking more about what they had lost and how they were feeling than we talked about books. I think that was meant to be. The talks moved from novels to grief to the idea of writing a book of our own about their experiences with loss. Before we knew it, we had officially picked a name and decided to start a business together, a business about grief. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in, but I knew this was important to their healing, and so I went along with them. Our goal was to help others navigate their way through the loss of a soul mate, to avoid all the dead-ends my friends had encountered as they sought ways to find their way through the depths of their own grief. And so, From Grief to Peace was born.

From the beginning, I questioned what I could possibly have to contribute to this incredible effort. After all, I was still blessed with a living husband, a man I love to distraction. My bubble-wrapped emotions denied any other loss, conveniently ignoring my own mother’s death when I was so young. Betts and Joy assured me that I brought a unique perspective to what we were doing. Who among us, after all, was better suited to speak for and to those who are outside the immediate grief? We recognized that most people are uncomfortable with death and being close to someone who is consumed by mourning. Thus, they have no idea what to say or what to do, and so they often do the wrong thing.

It has been a learning process for me. My friends have taught me much of what I needed to know. But personal losses after the bubble wrap started to unwind taught me even more. I know it may sound trite and insensitive to someone who has suffered such an agonizing loss as that of a soul mate, but the untimely and far too premature death of a beloved cat ripped away at that bubble wrap and left me emotionally devastated for weeks. I knew there was no comparison to what they had endured, but I began to see glimpses of what my friends were feeling.

And then I lost a soul sister. When Anita died, I knew grief. I really knew grief. Thank God for that earlier, somewhat lesser loss of my cat. It prepared me for this greater, more profound loss. Thank God for all my two friends had taught me about their grief. They prepared me too. Thank God for what they had shown me about life after death. It taught me that love never dies, it just takes on a different, more challenging aspect. I experienced the grief of my loss, but it could not devastate me. I was prepared. And as those I love enfolded me in compassion, I learned what it really means to support someone through a loss.

I am learning that I actually did something right with a single lunch and a doggie playdate all those months ago. It may not have been enough, but it was something. Although I am still uncomfortable with all the feelings that come with grief and showing support to someone immersed in the pain of loss, most of the bubble wrap is gone from my heart now. I can feel their sorrow. I walk in their shoes for at least a few steps. And after all these years, in opening my heart to pain too long suppressed, to feeling the fullness of grief, I am finally beginning to breathe again.

Chapter 1
Is This Really Happening?

Photo by Cathy Marley

What Works for You

The one you love is gone, and suddenly you find yourself alone. In your sorrow, you will be getting advice from every corner of your life, especially for the first few months. Join a support group ... don’t be alone ... get out of the house ... take up a new hobby … write … make new friends … travel … and so on, and on, and on. But maybe all you want to do is stay behind the four walls of your home and cry. The last thing you want is people hovering over you. Or maybe you want those people around you, lots of them. Yes, you desperately want something to distract you from your grief, but what is the “right” thing?

The fact is, despite all the pain, you are still the same basic person you were before. Your inherent personality has not changed. If anything, it is magnified by tenderness. It is more intensely present and uncensored than ever before. Just being widowed doesn’t mean you change who you are and what works best for you. If you were solitary before, you will probably continue to find comfort in being alone. If you were sociable and gregarious, preferring to be with friends before, chances are you will still want people around you now.

There is no right way to do this. Yet, you will find that you need to do something once you feel able to take that first step toward overcoming the inertia that enveloped you the moment you realized your love was really gone and you were alone. It is not uncommon to rush from one new “project” or activity to another. Just know that there are things you can do that will fit with your unique personality. Those are the things that will help you the most. They do not have to be complicated or grand in scope. Sometimes the simplest things help the most.

One friend of mine could not stand the thought of going home to her empty house at dinnertime. Instead, she simply walked the extent of her local mall, window-shopping and surrounding herself with life and people, until dinnertime was well past and she could face going home to her empty house. It worked for her because she is very much a people person and always has been.

Another friend flew away to Europe almost immediately after her husband succumbed to his long illness. I know some of you may think it was callous, but the fact is, she had always traveled with her husband, and she was especially adventurous. Traveling was something they loved to do together. Seeing new lands, hearing new tongues, and tasting unfamiliar foods reminded her of the good things they had experienced as a couple. It brought her comfort.

Yet another friend simply could not handle the stream of well-meaning friends who appeared after her husband’s transition. She found her comfort in being alone, meditating, writing, reading, exploring this strange new world she found herself inhabiting. But then, her before world had focused on her relationship with her husband. They were the center of each other’s universe, complete in their intimate circle of two. With him gone, she found a new connection with him in the mental and spiritual focus that came in the midst of a familiar solitude. It is a connection that still endures almost six years later.

The thing is, you have to find what works for you in the grief process. You will know what that is because everything else will leave you just a little bit uncomfortable. I’m not saying you should not try new and different things, to step outside your box, if you will. You may discover a new passion you had overlooked before. You may meet new friends who become a lifetime support system. But just recognize that the new things that will last longest are probably the things that fit most closely with who you really are. Those will be the things that work for you.

The Widowed Box

It’s just a box on a form—every form. But in that short list of one-word choices is a timeline of your entire adult life. Single. Married. Divorced. Widowed.

The day you move from checking Single to checking Married, you feel a little thrill zing through your heart. You think: I’m married. I’m really married. And my life is now two, not just me. It is an exciting moment, filled with potential for a wondrous new way of living. Married is a word of promise and hope, commitment, and beginnings. And if that person is your soul mate, you feel the synergy that comes from your connection. From the very beginning, you know the two of you together are far stronger than either of you has ever been alone. And so it will remain through time. You hope.

For some, the connection may not be as real as you think, and one day you move from checking Married to checking Divorced. The pain you feel from having half your life removed may be a mixture of relief and sadness. But on some level, it is still loss—loss of wonder, loss of promise, loss of your self-image, loss of an imagined future, loss, loss, loss. Suddenly, or perhaps over a too-long time, you are Single again. But now you must still check Divorced, a word of endings and disappointment. There was a time when the world viewed that box like a scarlet letter screaming “failure” to the world. Perhaps in your heart it still feels that way, but checking Divorced is still an acknowledgement that once upon a time, you were part of two, you were married. It took two people to create the divorce, but it still feels intensely personal. And once again you are one.

For the lucky ones, checking Married on the form is a forever thing. You simply know that you will always be part of this pair that came into being when you said, I do. You begin checking that box automatically, giving it little thought. It is just the way your life is and will always be. You hope. Until one day, you are alone again through no fault, no divorce, no desired separation. And the day comes when you are faced with one last choice on the list—Widowed. It is a word pregnant with tearful loss, with grief, with solitude.

Until you have to check that Widowed box for the first time, you can never fully understand how traumatic it can be. It’s like putting a “finished” stamp on a part of your life that has defined who you are. Joy thought of herself as an integral part of JoyandJohn just as Betts became half of BettsandJerry. Through some mysterious, magical process, they each became more than they had ever been before. And when their soul mates were gone from this life, they both felt that more than half of who they were was gone with them. Of course, both Joy and Betts are strong women. But they will both agree that the absence of the men they knew to be their soul mates has left them somehow less than whole. Although checking that Widowed box made their loss real, it still acknowledged the existence of a relationship that permanently changed who they are.

Joy tells the story of a visit to her broker’s office where, shortly after John’s death, the secretary had prepared a number of forms for her to sign. For marital status, the woman had thoughtlessly checked Single. Oh, what a vast difference there is between Single and Widowed! It’s a lifetime of moments small and great, a shared laugh over a secret joke, hands touching, eyes speaking, hearts connecting. For Joy, checking that Single box represented the ultimate betrayal of her marriage, denying it had ever existed. It was like saying that all the years as an entwined, integral part of JoyandJohn had never happened. A small thing, perhaps, for people who have never been there, but for a woman grieving deeply, it was more painful than having to check the Widowed box. One thoughtless check mark simply erased what she considered to be the best thing that ever happened to her, a connection that made her a far better person, far more than she would have been alone. To her credit, Joy refused to allow that form to negate the years, the rewards, of her marriage. She quietly crossed out Single and checked Widowed. She claimed her widowhood, embracing all the remembered joy and the new pain it represented.

Sadly, that Widowed box is one of the first real-world experiences you face after losing your soul mate. Inevitably, there are forms you must complete for everything. With every form, it rises up and slaps you right in the face, almost shouting, In the eyes of the world, you are no longer part of two. You are a person alone.

The first time my friend, Anne, had to check that box after she lost her husband, she went home and cried. She told me, “I felt like a has-been who used to be a wife and was now a disconnected widow. I told myself I was getting old and was being pushed aside, etc., etc. It was a real pity party, but I knew I could not wallow in that self-pity or I would be lost. So, I picked myself up and made myself keep going.” Sometimes that is the only way to live with heart-rending grief—allow it, acknowledge the life-changing loss you have suffered, then boot any feelings of self-pity out of your heart, put one foot in front of the other, and just keep slogging ahead. Eventually, momentum will keep you moving forward no matter how much it hurts.

Such experiences are all too common. The fact is that the Widowed box is also something of a badge of honor. Those who check that box know what it is like to be tied at the heartstrings with another human being. And they have survived one of the most grievous losses any of us can experience. But they have survived. They have learned how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, even when the pain feels unbearable. And they are doing it alone with only sweet memories to sustain them.

Would You Want to Know?

It is a question we have often discussed among ourselves. Is it easier to deal with the sudden death of your soul mate or to have warning and deal with a lingering illness? There are no easy answers.

But what about a combination of the two alternatives? How would you feel if you discovered in their last hours that your soul mate had a terminal illness and had chosen not to tell you that he or she was dying?

Last night I was watching a television program where one main storyline revolved around this issue. Thinking he was protecting his wife, the man who was dying tried his best to keep it from her. Of course, as inevitably happens with such illnesses, his condition worsened to a point where he had to be hospitalized, and he could no longer hide it. Typical of television stories, they quickly reconciled his deception and spent his remaining time in a form of bliss. It felt incredibly false to me. But then, unlike life, it was television where everything is resolved in an hour.

I found myself angry with the character for denying his wife the time she may have needed to come to grips with losing him and to say goodbye properly. Was I wrong to feel that way? Not having personally been through that depth of loss, I don’t know. I think that I would have felt a whole gamut of emotions —betrayal, heartbreak, and anger most of all—but I would have also been reluctant to tell him how I truly felt in his final hours. That in itself, I think, would be a form of dishonesty, which has no place in a relationship between soul mates. What a sad legacy to have to carry beyond that ultimate separation. And then once he was gone, I would have still been left to sort through all the feelings. I suspect healing would take forever.

Dying is the one thing we are guaranteed we will have to do alone. No one can do it for us. I wonder what possible benefit could come from choosing to reach that point alone as well? Which is easier for the one left behind? Knowing or not knowing what was coming? Sudden departure or lingering illness? And if in fact there is a lingering illness with no hope of recovery, would you want to know so together you could make the most of the time your loved one has left on this plane? Or would you prefer to have your last days together untainted by the specter of death approaching the door?

“No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had.”
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Get Over It? The Constant Weight of Grief

When have you grieved enough? Historically, society dictated when that should happen. Lose a spouse and your wardrobe was expected to go black for at least a year. Gradually, you were allowed to reintroduce color into your world, but only in somber shades. Somehow, a year became the magic number. For a lot of people, that just was not enough. Queen Victoria mourned her Albert for the rest of her days on earth. And she had the power to demand mourning black for everyone in her presence. For Victoria, a lifetime of wearing black and requiring it of those around her was not enough to properly show the depth of her mourning.

Our culture today still allows that year. But over time, it has gradually become less expected. Now, rather than demand you mourn for a year, society expects you to be finished with your grief in that time or less. But what if you are Queen Victoria’s modern-day counterpart, and a mere year is simply not enough time to properly mourn a loss that feels as though your very heart has been ripped from your body? Nooooooooooo, you cry! I am not ready. So, what do you do when society pushes you to stop grieving and move on with your life?

Well, you can push back, but the chances are you will be facing accusations of that old psychological bugaboo, “living in denial.” I guess you can’t really dispute that one without throwing up your hands, giving in to the pressure and declaring, Hallelujah, I am healed! No more grief. Bring on the dating game. Now that’s probably a lie, right? The fact is, if you have lost a soul mate, you may never be ready for that BS and the grief simply becomes a part of who you are. It integrates. And when asked how you are doing, you learn to put on a happy face and declare, I’m fine.

There will probably come a time when someone—most likely your doctor or some well-meaning friend—will declare that you have grieved long enough, slap a depressed label on your psyche, and suggest you turn to antidepressants as a way to “move forward with your life” or worse yet, “get over it.” Really? Get over it? Not yet. Not for the love of your life. This is a classic example of how people put their own timelines onto someone else’s grieving process. The sad thing is that they are pressing you out of a misguided sense of caring about you. What you may really need is for someone to just listen to you talk, to accept that your life has changed, and to realize you will get over the loss in your own time.

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