It starts like this. I am picking up my daughter from day camp on the shores of Lake Michigan and taking her to Wrigley Field. Zoë likes the Cubs so I thought I would surprise her with a game. It’s a pretty day, and as we bike along the brownstone streets of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, my daughter on the bike-seat behind me with her curly hair blowing in the wind, we are the vision of summer.
We enter the crowd and I buy two tickets behind home plate. Zoë is almost five, small for her age, so she sits on my lap so she can see better. As the game starts, I throw my left arm around her body, my hand cupping her side, and there, under her ribs, I feel a bump.
I don’t make much of it, though at night I mention it to Elise. It feels like an extra rib, though there isn’t one on her right side. Neither of us is concerned, nevertheless in the morning I make an appointment with our pediatrician, just to be safe. The next day I take Zoë to the pediatrician, who feels Zoë’s side and says the bump is probably a cyst, and will go away, though the following day it feels bigger.
On Saturday we go to another game at Wrigley Field, this time with Elise and Zoë’s little sister, Mia. The Cubs lose, as they do, but everyone has a good time and we take a family photo next to the field after the game. As a precaution we had scheduled an ultrasound, so on Monday morning Elise brings Zoë and Mia to a nearby imaging clinic. Elise is finishing her post-doc in Chicago and will start teaching at NYU in the fall. We are moving to New York in two weeks.
I write children’s books and have to sketch an illustration this morning for my next book. My desk in our second-floor apartment looks over a quiet street of brownstones and shaded trees, and I am standing next to my desk, sharpening my pencil and staring out the window when the phone rings. It’s Elise, and her voice is quiet, and she is saying there is a tumor on Zoë’s kidney and I am watching the leaves outside the window turn in the morning light, waving and bobbing in the breeze—tumor, kidney, kidney, tumor — and I listen to Elise, and I don’t think the word “cancer” is said by either of us, and it’s such a pretty day, and then I am out the door.
We meet at the edge of our local park, Elise coming toward me with the girls in their jogger. We hold each other, and I give each of my daughters a kiss on their heads — they are happily playing with each other—and Elise and I hold each other again.
The next days are blurry, but everything we do is very precise. We call our pediatrician. We arrange to meet the oncologist. We go to Children’s Memorial Hospital across the park and meet the oncologist, a smiling man with small glasses. He tells us Zoë has a pediatric kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumor, a “good cancer,” a funny pairing of words. Surgery is scheduled, as soon as possible, two days from now. We meet the surgeon, who shows us on a monitor the tumor surrounding Zoë’s kidney. It’s a dark mass, unreadable. We make more phone calls. Parents, insurers. When one of us is on the phone, the other is with the girls. Our minds are never where we are.
Elise calls NYU and tells them we have to delay our move to New York. I call the publicist for a book I wrote about being a father — the paperback is coming out next month — and tell her I won’t be able to do all the things I said I was going to do. I hear in her silences she doesn’t know what to say. I call friends back east. I reach one as he’s driving to the city from Fire Island and in the background I hear seagulls.
We go to a beach on the lake with Zoë and some of her friends. As the girls play in the water, we talk with the parents, keeping our voices level with nothing-to-see-here expressions on our faces. At night we tell Zoë the growth on her kidney needs to come out, and how that will happen, and that everything will be okay. Zoë looks at us and nods. We tell Mia that her sister needs to go to the doctor, and that everything will be okay. Mia nods too, like her sister. We take baths. On Zoë’s left side we are able to see the tumor now. In two days it has grown and is rearing out from under her ribs, like something inside punching outward. We sit on the couch and tell bedtime stories.
Once the girls are asleep we call friends who are doctors, and at midnight we read and reread the Mayo Clinic website, our apartment illuminated by the soft glow of computer screens. Numbers and percentages, probabilities of survival. Numbers that, once learned, we will never not know. We are experts now. We know the numbers.
Then we shut down our computers and lie in bed.
Zoë’s day camp is in a church across the street from Children’s Memorial. On Thursday we pick Zoë up. She’s wearing her nursery school T-shirt. The drawing of the child on the shirt looks like Zoë, with its curly hair and small smile. She looks no different than she did last week. We bring her stuffed tiger, and we walk across the street.
Hours of drinking fluids and fasting, reading books in the bright light of the waiting room. Plastic chairs circle the room, and down one corridor comes a distal hum. Empty halls seem to lead everywhere. Then it is time, and as Zoë is led away by a nurse through a swinging door we tell her we will see her very soon.
We wait. An hour, five hours. The surgery takes longer than it is supposed to — a soundless television with breaking news hangs from the ceiling above us — then we are summoned and meet the surgeon in a windowless room. The surgeon looks tired. There were complications, the tumor broke apart. The surgeon removed the tumor, and the kidney, and had to remove part of the colon, too. The cancer is stage three, which is not good. But I am not thinking about that and we are led to Zoë, and we are able to see her, and she’s asleep. So peaceful and so pretty, her head resting on her stuffed tiger, tubes spiraling out of her.
I don’t remember when she woke, I don’t remember when I went to bed. In the next days Elise and I are always with her, or shuttling home to be with Mia. We take turns, though at night it is mostly Elise. We set up camp in Zoë’s room in the hospital. During the day we go to the playroom, Zoë rolling on the stand that holds her IV and wearing a green gown that covers the horizontal stitches on her side. We bring Mia to visit. She clambers onto her sister’s bed. They share pancakes.
The days are hot, the evenings cool, and at midnight I bike through empty streets to the hospital, though it is only two blocks away. I try to sleep on the chair at Zoë’s side. At four in the morning we are woken by a pack of white-coated residents who watch us from behind clipboards. After six days, Zoë comes home.
The next week we bike downtown to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for radiation. The radiologist is round and South Asian and friendly. His four assistants draw on Zoë’s belly, measuring to the millimeter, in blue ink. Then she is slid flat into the radiation machine. Zoë’s stuffed tiger goes in the machine, too.
“It’s all in the biology,” says the radiologist as we wait in a control room bleeping with screens, giving me a big grin. Everyone here is so cheerful.
On the bike ride home Zoë throws up. We don’t hear her at first. She’s tough, the kind of child who doesn’t want people to see her cry. In the next weeks she has nine more radiation treatments, and she starts chemotherapy. We have more appointments at Children’s Memorial. We call doctors at Memorial
Sloan Kettering in New York. We call doctors at New York-Presbyterian. We meet our oncologist. He tells us Zoë’s histology is good, though I’m not exactly sure what that means. We plan our daughter’s treatment and the continuing chemotherapy she will receive in the fall.
“It’s going to be okay,” the oncologist says before we leave the last time, giving me a hearty handshake.
What is “it”? This unspoken it. But we know what it is. It is everything, and it is all in the biology, and it is what we have become, and we would think more about it but we have a birthday party to plan.
We had to cancel Zoë’s birthday party when she was in the hospital, so now we plan a shared birthday party for her and Mia. Elise bakes a cake with butterflies and bugs in the frosting and our friends gather in the local park. The day is humid and we lead the girls and their friends on a scavenger hunt through Oz Park, following clues we taped to the statue of the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. Then we eat pizza in the shade. Just another festive, manic birthday party, interrupted by a dog stealing the pizza. But even that doesn’t matter and the girls blow out the candles. Zoë is five. Mia is three.
We slice the cake, and afterwards the children go to the playground with Elise as I clean up, and here’s that dog again, a silvery Weimeraner, and this time he’s going for the cake.
What the hell? I look around for the dog’s owner, and see him standing to the side in shades and a button-down shirt.
“Hey, watch your fucking dog,” I say.
The man tells me to watch my language, tells me that children are present, tells me something about his being a lawyer, but I am reaching for a piece of cake.
Throwing a piece of cake is not easy, especially one covered with frosting. As the piece of cake flies through the air—my throw underhanded and weak—I think about that second baseman who played for the New York Yankees a few years ago and couldn’t make the simplest throw to first base, and the piece comes down halfway between me and the man, splattering the ground.
“I’m a lawyer!” the man shouts. “I’m a lawyer!”
Something about his emphasis makes me reach for a second piece. This time my throw is better and the man grabs his Weimeraner and runs. As I stand watching him go, one hand smeared in chocolate and the other, I realize, holding a frosting-covered kitchen knife, I wonder if there are elements of this story that may get away from me.
We pack up our apartment. Boxes of books, pots and pans, the original art from my own books. I drive out to DeKalb County to the farm I’ve been sketching for my next children’s book and tell the farmer I will return in the fall. I bike to the café across from the old movie theater in Lincoln Square where I wrote the book about first becoming Zoë’s father. We pack our desks, fitting everything we own into the orange-ribboned U-Haul parked out front that will go to New York before us. I take trips up and down the stairs, as Zoë and Mia play in a water sprinkler on the sidewalk out front.
Our last weekend in Chicago we go again to Wrigley Field. We sit near first base, so close to home we can hear the smack of the ball into the catcher’s mitt. Our seats are not far from where Zoë and I sat last month, the difference between that day and this day so large it resists metaphor. We move from before to after; we have no idea what will come. All we know is that everything is different and that we must go.
Zoë gets tired and we leave early, though not before a player from the other team launches a ball deep into the bleachers and we see the ball thrown back. In the morning we will be gone.
After a last look around our empty apartment, and a last wave to our street, we pack into our blue station wagon—Elise beside me in the front, Mia in the backseat with her sheep blanket, Zoë with her stuffed tiger—and we head south along Lake Michigan, the skyline slipping away from us in the rearview mirror.
We drive away on a beautiful day in late summer, me and my girls.
Our new home is on the seventh floor of a large building south of Washington Square Park. It’s faculty housing, ugly and brick, but in the heart of Greenwich Village. Our corner apartment is white-walled and modern, with windows and a small balcony just above the tree line, so it feels like we’re in a tree house, or the prow of a boat cutting through a green ocean. From our kitchen we can look across the street into our neighbor’s kitchen; they can look into ours.
Friends come and help. College friends, and friends from when we used to live in New York. Someone brings pizza and we eat on the floor among unpacked boxes. My childhood friend Barney brings ice cream. Another friend gives Zoë and Mia ten dollars each to root for the Mets. Our friends rally around us. As they leave they say, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
But most of what we do we do alone. Unpacking boxes, building bookshelves, assembling a bunk bed, hooking up the internet, having a dishwasher installed. Then we tuck the girls into bed and fill out school forms, details carrying us into the night.
We count down the days to Zoë’s first day of kindergarten and then, inevitably, that morning is here. We walk through Washington Square Park under the marble arch, then north on Fifth Avenue and west on Eleventh Street, joining a stream of families that pools in front of Public School 41. Parents anxious and beaming, children anxious. The doors open and we step inside, Zoë’s kindergarten teacher greeting everyone with an impossibly animated smile. Zoë stares at her. Zoë is wearing a light blue dress and sits with Elise at a small desk, lightly holding Elise’s ear—something she did when she was an infant—and then we go.
Elise starts teaching. She’s an assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU and her days fill with classes and meetings, and early morning runs along the river. I stay home and organize our apartment, and set up my desk. Mostly I make deliveries and pickups. Delivering Mia to preschool, delivering Zoë to school, picking up Mia for lunch and a nap, then picking up Zoë. I find a café near P.S. 41 with good hot chocolate where we read after school. Then we walk home through Washington Square Park. We feel our way into the neighborhood, establishing routine.
Then, Friday. Friday is the day we go to the hospital.
In the week we are unpacking, we take the subway up to Washington Heights. New York-Presbyterian sits on the ridge of Upper Manhattan, looking out over the Hudson River. A clunky cluster of brick buildings mimicked by the hospital’s clunky name—New York-Presbyterian, Morgan Stanley Children’s
Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, Herbert Irving Pavilion, Herbert Irving Child and Adolescent Oncology Center. After a while we refer to all of it as “the hospital.”
At the Herbert Irving Pavilion we get a pass from the security guard and ride the elevator to the seventh floor and the pediatric oncology clinic. The reception room is awash in pastels. Stenciled turtles and fish and ladybugs swim around the floor in greens and blues. The receptionists are welcoming and friendly, slipping an ID band around Zoë’s wrist and giving us multiple forms to fill out. Then we wait for Dr. Alice Lee.
We hear her first, a click-clack of high heels. As she turns the corner her smile precedes her, too. She says hello to Zoë, leaning down and sort of ignoring us. Young and animated, with black hair angling over an open and affable face, she wears a soft white sweater. Her kindness and directness are instantly assuring—something Elise sensed when they spoke on the phone from Chicago—along with the fact that Dr. Alice Lee is an expert on Wilms’ tumor.
We plan the fall. Every Friday, Zoë will come to the hospital. She will come with me, or with Elise. She will be weighed and measured, have her blood taken and sent to the lab for its white-blood-cell count, then have dactinomycin or vincristine or doxorubicin drip through the port that had been inserted in her chest during surgery, and into her body. Twenty-two weeks of chemotherapy. Everything leading to CT scans in the winter that will tell us whether all this —surgery to remove the tumor, radiation to kill remaining cancer cells, chemotherapy to keep remaining cancer cells killed — has worked. That is the plan.
After talking with Dr. Lee about the details—and also about her favorite foods and favorite musicals as she and Zoë chat together on the examining table—we thank her and walk out of the hospital into a bright and beautiful morning.
A few years ago, on a similar beautiful fall morning, Elise and I woke up at my friend Barney’s apartment in Greenwich Village. We were in New York for a wedding, having flown in from California, where Elise was in grad school at Berkeley. Barney’s shower was broken so we put on our clothes from the night before and walked over to West Fourth Street and caught the A train to JFK, which took us beneath the World Trade Center at the same time the first plane hit the north tower above us.
We had no idea. We came out the other side—a man in our subway car pointed out the smoking tower behind us as we rolled through Brooklyn—and we reached the airport and turned around and took a livery cab to Elise’s grandmother’s apartment in Bay Ridge. We could see the tops of both towers billowing in the distance, a pair of out-of-place smokestacks, and then we couldn’t. We called our family — they were frantic because they knew we were flying to California that morning — then our cell phones gave out and we walked through Brooklyn to the river. As we walked past Green-Wood Cemetery, there were small birds pecking at seeds in the grass and flitting up into the trees, back and forth, and sometimes a piece of paper, burned at its edges, would flutter down next to the birds. I picked up one of these, a memo from the Secret Service from an office in the towers. In the air above us I could see a contrail of other papers flying eastward. Shimmery and white in the blue sky, they looked like migrating birds.
For the next week, with no flights out of New York, we were stranded. We crossed back to the Village—the void to the south of us smoking and reeking—and met friends and gave water to firefighters as they roared up and down the West Side Highway. We read newspapers, and MISSING notices in parks, and in the afternoon we gave more water. Mostly we walked the deserted streets of downtown and felt there was little we could do.
When I think of those days I remember two things. The color of the sky that morning, that cerulean blue. How clear it was. How strange that on such a beautiful day, birds could be flying in one part of the city while tragedy unfolded in another. How there could be so much beauty in the world, and so much horror, blocks from each other. How normality and madness could co-exist.
I also remember waking in Brooklyn that first night. In my hazy three-in-the-morning state I wondered if what had happened had happened and then I smelled that acrid smell through the window and knew that yes, it had. It took an hour to fall asleep. The next night I woke, and the next, but each time the smell wasn’t as sharp and I returned to sleep earlier, and then I didn’t wake until daybreak. Shock dulled into day-to-day. But what didn’t change was change. There was the sense that the world was realigned, there was no going back. Life was propulsive.
I guess there’s a last thing I remember: Elise and I felt like New Yorkers again. We had lived in the city before, and like many we were affected but not directly. We were witnesses. With all the clamor from the rest of the country, the attack made us feel isolated. New York was alone, no one understood. We would have to figure this out and move forward by ourselves. After a week we flew home to California and Elise was pregnant within a month. Sometimes I think that September morning led directly to Zoë.
The fall continues. During the day I shop for groceries or do publicity work I was supposed to do for the paperback of my fatherhood book. I sign copies of the book at bookstores. I introduce myself to the owner of Three Lives & Co., our local bookstore, and convince him to put the book in the window (on the back cover there’s a photo of Zoë and me, her staring into the camera with big one-year-old eyes). I go to a café in the Village and check proofs of an upcoming children’s book and drink too many macchiatos. Afterwards I take the subway to the offices of the The New Yorker magazine, where I used to work, and meet editors I used to work for. On my way downtown I look at my reflection in a window of the F train and see a dried band of coffee foam across my nose, which had been there the whole time. I pick the girls up from school and tell them this story at dinner.
Mornings bring their first chill. We look down to the street to see what pedestrians are wearing, and dress accordingly. We dress Zoë in clothes that mothers in her kindergarten class have given to us: a soft white vest, a furry brown hat. The mothers are so generous. It is unsaid but we are known at the school as the new family with the girl with cancer.
Some days it rains, and while Mia naps outside in the jogger, I send Zoë into the café for hot chocolates. I give her a twenty-dollar bill; sometimes she doesn’t bring back the change. As we walk home I tell the girls about the Minetta Stream running underneath us where cabs now whoosh up Sixth Avenue. Or I point out the brownstone where Mark Twain lived. We walk through the park past the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi. We wave at him and come home to the smell of sautéing onions. Barney comes over, and as Elise and I cook, the girls chase him around the apartment, tugging at his long legs. During dinner, Zoë and Mia tell us what they did at school today, the friends they are making. Afterward I clean up and watch them on the couch—Mia with her sheep blanket, Zoë with her tiger—leaning into Elise as she reads aloud. Then baths and bedtime. The normality of a week.
But every week has a Friday.
The security guard at the Herbert Irving Pavilion recognizes us and waves us through. The receptionists at the clinic give us smiles, and loop an ID band around Zoë’s ankle so her hands are free to draw. Nurses give her hugs, and take her blood. They are kind and careful, and as they ask Zoë what she’s learned at school this week while attaching the needle to the line for the doxorubicin, the action takes on a slightly dissonant air, like someone singing a lullaby while loading a gun.
Zoë does not cry. Sometimes she narrows her eyes, a small stoic (when told not to move in the radiation machine at Northwestern she lay motionless for twenty minutes). We sit in comfortable chairs and watch as the salmon-colored liquid drips down a bendy tube and into her. I read books to her, and out our window we can see tugboats and barges sliding up and down the Hudson. After an hour the nurses check to see how much doxorubicin remains, and make Zoë promise to bring her stuffed tiger in next week so they can be properly introduced. Then we hear heels coming down the hall, and Dr. Lee is ready to see us. She asks Zoë what’s new in kindergarten while listening to her chest with a stethoscope, her patter never stopping, palpating her belly with searching fingers, the smile never leaving her face. Four hours after we entered the hospital, we are free to go. We head outside loaded down with so many toys it looks like we robbed a toy store and we slip back into the city, back into the world of the unbanded.
Some Fridays after the hospital I bring Zoë back to school. Most Fridays she is tired and when we get off at West Fourth Street I carry her to ‘Ino, an Italian restaurant on Bedford Street where we share small sandwiches. We pick Mia up from preschool, then go to the café. Mia naps in the jogger, Zoë buys hot chocolate. She’s known as the “big-tipping girl” now and the baristas change the name of the chocolate on the chalkboard: The Little Zoë.
The days grow short. I fly back to Chicago to sketch the corn harvest for my children’s book on farms. I rent a car and drive out to DeKalb County and meet the farmer in his field under a wide Midwestern sky. The corn was green when I was here last but has turned yellow and dusty. I climb into the cab of his combine and it roars back and forth, eating up stalks and pumping a stream of golden seeds into the hopper behind us. The farmer tells me that sometimes a fox gets caught in front of the combine and the exhausted animal just keeps running until the combine turns at the end of the row. I drive into the city and walk by our old home, then around Children’s Memorial. As I head through the park I see the lawyer and his Weimeraner. I can’t believe it. Where is a slice of cake when you need one? But he does not recognize me and I don’t say anything and keep going and fly back to New York.
The days grow windy. The ocean of trees outside our window has turned brown. Leaves whip our legs as we walk to school. For Halloween, both girls are butterflies. Elise sews wings to the backs of flowered dresses. We join the parade around Washington Square Park, with Zoë sitting on my shoulders. At night, one of Elise’s students comes over and stays with the girls as they sleep and Elise and I go out to dinner. We talk about friends and work and family. We talk about our new life here. But there are times when we just hold hands and don’t say anything. There’s not much to say we both don’t know.
We keep moving.
Over Thanksgiving we drive to the farm in Connecticut where I grew up. When I was a boy we had goats and horses and cats, but those are gone, buried at the crest of the orchard. My parents have two old dogs now. Zoë and Mia climb on them and climb the apple trees. We hike through the lower fields, the ground brittle with frost, and come inside to a table filled with turkey and bread, and vegetables from my parents’ garden.
Back in the city, the evenings are dark and bright with Christmas tree lights. The season of holiday parties, and we go to a party at a friend’s place in Brooklyn. Mia wears a dark blue velvet dress, Zoë’s dress is red. They are playing in front of a fireplace.
I leave them for a moment to get food, and as I am returning with two plates, I look across the room through this swirling and happy crowd and see Zoë and stop.
Who is this girl? She looks ill. This is an ill girl. From this distance she looks so small and so thin. Her arms are bones, her arms are clothes hangers inside her dress. Her hair wisps her head. Her eyes, which were large before, are if possible even larger, wide and luminous in her gaunt face. Her eyes are immense.
Anyone would see this but us. We can’t see this. Since we see her every day, since she is right in front of us, we don’t see the change in her. But, then, how would we see her differently? Because this is Zoë. This is my daughter, we are doing everything we always do, she is playing with her sister, some inimitable game of their own devising, and I am bringing them food.
But the convergence of these feelings, at this party in Brooklyn brimming with warmth, looking from this remove at my daughter who may or may not still have cancer, who may or may not have a new tumor, who has undergone months of chemotherapy the success of which we do not know, and the possibility of what we will find in her scans this winter and what that would mean, this gutting knowledge enters me and leaves me…
I don’t think about it. I do not think about it.
All I know is that tomorrow we will wake up and get dressed and eat breakfast. We will walk across the park to school, and in the afternoon we will go to the café and drink hot chocolate. Our bodies will take over and we will lose our minds in books and we will come home for dinner and laugh and take baths and read more books and tuck our children into bed and in the morning we will wake up and do it again. We will keep moving. Tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. The unavoidable velocity of a day.
When I was in college, I spent a summer out west working for the U.S. Forest Service. I was in a trail crew building fences in the Salmon National Forest, up in the mountains of the Continental Divide on the border between Idaho and Montana. The trail crew was made up of a bunch of silent men, and led by a silent Vietnam vet. I was the talkative kid from back East.
One of the silent men had a set of weights in his basement—he told us he was the dead-lift champion of Idaho—and since I was getting in shape for the upcoming football season, I would go to his house after work each day to lift. His house was at the bottom of the Lemhi Valley, twenty miles from the Forest Service Station where I was staying. Some days I would bike there, work out for an hour, then bike back. Some days I hitched a ride down the valley in a pickup, my bicycle in the bed of the truck. One day I caught a ride with the Forest Service biologist on the back of his motorcycle.
The biologist had a mustache that made him look like a marauding Viking. His motorcycle was a black Harley. He told me just to hold my bicycle, that this would be okay, no problem, so I hopped on behind him and held my bike over my shoulder and threw my other arm around his waist. I can’t remember now if I wore a helmet. I don’t think I did.
We started down the road, gathering speed as we accelerated past ranches and high desert scrub, carving the bends of the willow-lined Lemhi Creek at fifty miles an hour, sixty, seventy. We cut the wind. The Harley roared, the biologist’s mustache reaching back to me on either side of his face in whipping auburn tendrils. Sometimes he would shout something and I would shout something back to make it seem like I had heard. Or he would point out a detail on the valley’s horizon and I would watch his hand and wait for him to put it back on the handlebar.
As we flew down the valley—my bike against my back, my arm around this biologist I did not know—I got the sense that this was not wise. That this was quite possibly the most dangerous thing I had ever done. Ludicrous, insane.
But there wasn’t anything to do about it. Or, at least, getting off didn’t feel like an option. My fear was so immediate the only thing to do was suspend it, or give into it. Giving in or not was not even the point, just making it around the next bend was, and the bend after that, as the farms and ditches of the Lemhi
Valley swept past in a wilding blur. I held on as tight as I could and leaned into the curves, embracing the impossible in an act of faith as we sped down the road in front of us.
Excerpted from FALLING: A Father, A Daughter, and a Journey Back by Elisha Cooper and published by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Elisha Cooper. Excerpted with permission of the author.
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