' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The question that never goes away: Who do we tell we are first/birth mothers?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The question that never goes away: Who do we tell we are first/birth mothers?

When do you tell strangers that you are mother of a child who was adopted--and then make them understand what you mean? That you are not the adoptive mother that statement might lead them to assume. You are the "other mother."

One would think that for me at least this question would be settled--after all, I wrote two books and more than three dozen magazine pieces, opeds, letters, etc. over the decades I've been involved in unsealing records for adoptees. So one might think I'd spill my story at any possible opening. Not so. Once in a while I meet someone who wants to know if I am "that Lorraine Dusky," and well, yes I am. Done and out.

But mostly I'm like everybody else, juggling this piece of information as a gauge what the response might me--mild
shock, pity (no!) fear (some adoptive parents), negativity (more adoptive parents), curiosity, little reaction (very helpful when you don't want the information to spread throughout the room) immediate empathy (thank you very much, all you kind souls), or a voice that quietly says, Me too, or I'm adopted. I've encountered all of the above, but what I know before I say a word is that I cannot be sure what to expect.

And this is no where more true than in a hospital where people from disparate situations and lives converge. Nurse and doctors and residents and students and the person in the bed next to yours. You are all strangers on a train for that time you are there.

It's been quite an eventful week and a half for me since a week ago Saturday when husband Tony and I picked up my granddaughter Britt (as she is called here) at LaGuardia for a five day visit. Since we live a hundred miles from the airport, we stopped at a wings and burger kind of place on the way home. I ordered pulled pork and cole slaw, one of my favorite choices at such an establishment. I noticed the cole slaw was off, a bit, but not...well, off without being OFF. One bite and then another teeny taste to confirm. Britt noticed it was...warm.

After surgery. You don't want to see
the before shot.
I need to add right here that I had foot surgery in June and one site on said foot had not healed up properly. It kept filling up with fluid, I had it drained five weeks in a row, and I had already escalated the care and had an appointment with the doctor who gave me an ankle replacement a few years ago to find out what was going on.

What did go on that night was a raging case of food poisoning with all that entails, chills as well as tossing pickles at both ends. By Sunday night I texted a photo of my swollen, red ankle to the doctor who had done the recent foot surgery. Take the antibiotic you have at home with yogurt, he texted. By evening, I was able to keep all that down.

Come Monday morning, my ankle resembled a red tomato about to burst; I took another antibiotic, more yogurt and a probiotic, as well as texted a photo of my whole foot to the doc. He immediate message back was: GO TO ER. NOW. Off we go, packing nothing. When I got to ER at Southampton Hospital, I started crying as I spoke to the receptionist. I knew I was in the right place; relief was soon to come and I would not lose my foot. Let me add that a couple of years ago my brother ignored an infection that had no redness but was painful; the infection came from crashing his bike on cinder. He had two surgeries to clear the infection in his hip and spent 17 days in the hospital!

Tony and I are ushered immediately into a "decon" (decontamination) room. No other ER patients near me. Soon followed an immediate IV of antibiotics, several vials of blood drawn, X-rays, MRI and finally surgery later that afternoon. The conclusion: the already compromised spot on my ankle was a welcome home to the bacteria from the food poisoning, which also was the cause of a sore throat I noticed immediately after surgery that was worse the next morning. That turned out to be a staph infection (the good news: not MRSA); an infection that might have happened by touching the oozing foot and not immediately washing my hands! Or maybe the bacteria just wandered up there on its own. Anytime a nurse or an aide came near me she/he put on disposable gloves.

I felt awful most of Tuesday, but better by Wednesday even though the infectious disease doc didn't want to spring me and my throat was still sore enough to warrant pain killers. But I did get out after dinner time Wednesday. It was the last night of my granddaughter's visit. So it goes. Despite everything, I did meet some interesting people at Southampton Hospital, including a resident whose family orders Middle-Eastern bakery goods from a famous bakery in my home town, Dearborn, Michigan.

From my hospital window
Which brings me back to: Who do I tell, will the major story of my life even come up? Of course there will be opportunities.

I did not tell the three nurses who I dealt with in the three days I was there. Last time I did that (at another hospital in 2014)  I ended being visited by the head nurse of the night shift who wanted to tell me the story of how she got her two boys from Guatemala, and by the time she was finished, I was sure the kids had been stolen. And she had no clue. The nurse I did tell had found her husband's natural mother having pried her name and last known address out of an agency in New York that shall remain nameless. This was a year before I finished hole in my heart, and so I had given her a copy of Birthmark, and the head nurse saw it at the nursing station, which led to her late night visit to talk to me.

I did not tell the doctors. No need. Though I did wonder if the wonderful orthopedic surgeon (who is Korean) was adopted, as she was the right age when the Korean exodus was underway.

I did tell a medical student who was making rounds simply to talk to patients and ask them questions. Before I answered, I asked him a few--he was born in Brooklyn, educated in Nigeria, and came back here to Atlanta for medical school. He was only in Southampton Hospital for a couple of weeks. When I asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he though for a moment and said: Make a difference.

Since that has been the mantra of my life since I was old enough to think about what I wanted to do with my life, I immediately felt a bond and...told him. The next day he came into the room in the morning as asked if he could hug me! He'd done his Google search and that was his response.

I did tell the 26-year-old woman who I shared a room with one night. The hospital tried to keep me isolated, but it was a full moon in the Hamptons and ultimately every bed on the floor was filled. The second night at midnight, the woman came in with very swollen tonsils that were severely restricting her breathing. She needed surgery to remove them but that was impossible while I was there. She was also in the midst of sex change protocol, and reading a book about someone coming out about that. That led to me telling her my story, which led to her telling me about an adoptee/friend of her who was trying to connect to her siblings found on Facebook but not necessarily her mother, as her mother had given up four other children, and the sound of that put her friend off. And her friend was glad she had been adopted, as it afforded her a good education and a very different life than if her mother had kept her. That she could not imagine.

There's no defining moral to this story. We tell some people about the most traumatic even in our lives when it seems safe, or we might get someone to think differently from the running hum in America: All Adoption Is Good. It's good to talk about it when it feels safe, or when we know we can handle the reaction, even if it's not what we would like. After all, if we don't talk about it when there is an opening, who's going to do it?  Only by this can we move the public perception of what it means to be a mother who relinquished children to adoption, for whatever reasons, but always because we could not find a reasonable way to keep them close.

At home. 
And if we can tell the odd passenger seated next to us for a while, word of this will eventually spread, and mothers in the closet might find the courage to tell their families, and later be open to a son or daughter who finds them one day, maybe tomorrow. Secrets have power over us only as long as they are secrets. We'd love to hear from others about when and why they decided to tell strangers their deepest secret.--lorraine 

PS: Still taking antibiotics, but the last visit to both doctors showed I was healing well, and said I could stop them tomorrow instead of the longer course originally prescribed. I'm hobbling around in a big black boot that looks like a ski boot, but I have no pain and when last seen, yes, the ankle is in healing mode and not filling up with fluid. A small mesh insert implanted when the ganglia was first surgically drained in June was not absorbed as it was supposed to be, and apparently that caused the ankle to keep filling up with fluid. Tony and I were supposed to be on a Viking River Cruise this week; however, we had taken out trip insurance...a good thing. And thank god for Medicare.

You are only as sick as the secrets you keep

Keeping secrets in adoption can make you ill

Secrets everywhere, a good memoir to curl up with:
Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away
By June Cross
March 8, 2016
Really well done! Cross juxtaposes her life with the changing social context of a nation in transition, and does full justice to both. As a reader who grew up during the same period with a mixed-race sister, the varied expressions of that transition achieved a new clarity when illuminated by Cross' experience. I had not realized that other families like ours made such different choices, assuming that the level of secrecy maintained by Cross's relatives existed at least a decade (more, actually) earlier. I was struck by the strengths provided Cross by her foundation in a Black community--ironically, a foundation my sister yearned for and finally sought out as an adult.
5.0 out of 5 starsMeanwhile in Boston, my sister wanted a Black Family

March 8, 2016
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase

Really well done! Cross juxtaposes her life with the changing social context of a nation in transition, and does full justice to both. As a reader who grew up during the same period with a mixed-race sister, the varied expressions of that transition achieved a new clarity when illuminated by Cross' experience. I had not realized that other families like ours made such different choices, assuming that the level of secrecy maintained by Cross's relatives existed at least a decade (more, actually) earlier.I was struck by the strengths provided Cross by her foundation in a Black community - ironically, a foundation my sister yearned for and finally sought out as an adult.
Ms.Cross, I doubt you'll read this, but if so, I wonder if we ever passed one another on a Roxbury street or in Harvard Square - we lived in both places when you did!


  1. I don't tell total strangers anymore. The last time I did that, the look of pity on the woman's face put me off even wanting to speak to her again about anything, never mind another stranger about the adoption. Well, offline anyway. It's different online. I don't have to see people's faces, and I can block the mean ones.

  2. Oh my, that all sounds rather painful and I'm sure you glossed over the worst parts. Feel better soon and hopefully this time everything heals a little quicker.

  3. Dana, I agree the look of pity is pretty bad but I'd say I mostly find empathy.I once told a woman at the airport waiting for a plane that I was going to a CUB conference and why and she turned out to be an understanding adoptive mother with a grown son. We ended up having a good conversation.

    But what I will not do is talk endlessly about it at say, a party. At a party, I never say --well, I can think of once as I write this when I did--anything because it can take over the next twenty minutes as you are peppered with questions because they "have never met another birth mother." Yeah, right, I think, and say--Well, you probably have. The one time I did tell a stranger sitting next to me at dinner...she turned out to be a birth mother also an we had a very quiet conversation. Mostly I am afraid of telling an adoptee who is adamantly opposed to searching and is ... and feels very angry towards her birth/first mother. Adoptees probably go through this to some degree, but no one blames them for being adopted. But they are likely to hear the "you are so lucky./fortunate" mantra.

    1. I must have gotten a vibe from the other mother I told at the dinner party...a vibe that--I don't know, just a vibe to say something.

  4. I try to be aware of whom I'm speaking to when I tell my story because there are many people out there who are looking to pounce on victims and make us shut up. I was a victim and I believe that many if not all surrendering mothers are victims, and when we victims went on to get an education and have some sort of life, we don't look like victims. We look like perps. I've been pounced on by adoptive mothers who have sought me out because of things I've written and while I've connected with a couple of them, I sense that I seem worthy of some empathy only because I was an eleven year old assault victim and only for being a sexual assault victim, as if having my child taken and raised elsewhere was a favor I should write on some gratitude list. I hear, "no eleven year old girl can raise a child on her own." I cannot know what my life would have been like if my parents had been allowed to keep and raise my child and I'd been allowed to care for him, but, in our Roman Catholic parish, a girl who didn't know what sex was but was somehow pregnant, was characterized as a liar, feeble minded, and unfit, and her parents were somehow suspect because they raised her. A woman, perhaps the teenage father of the baby's mother, who takes and raises the child is looked at as a good religious woman, when indeed, she is part of a gender-biased conspiracy to hide sexual abuse. The Pope's recent visit to Ireland opened the door to more discussions of forced/coerced adoptions, and, in my case, intercommunity placements, among religious people here in the USA. Adoption is a feminist issue. I address it from that perspective to keep myself from getting to emotionally upset about things. I had no other children. I didn't remember my childhood pregnancy until I was 58 and that "just so happened to" follow extended post-concussion therapy done after a 2009 auto accident. An MRI of my brain done after the accident shockingly revealed that part of my brain is missing. That, and not denial, is why I didn't remember what happened. Psychiatric labels and gender based moralistic labels are also feminist issues. I appreciate Lorraine's comments, blog, book and advice. I rely on women who went before me now that I know I stand, in my own space, in a long line of women who went before me.

    1. Debra, that is a beautiful comment, though tinged with sadness over the wholeness of your life Shit happens. We are survivors. Agree completely that since you and I went on to have a life other than sitting in purdah for the rest of our days has made some people feel that I gave up my daughter lightly. And I do have "friendly acquaintances" in that group--women who know the basics but ignore the rest because, I feel, I'm not a wretch. That feeling was even more acute soon after Birthmark came out in 1979, when a glimpse of stocking was considering shocking...and I was shocking as hell!

  5. Hmm, i have never gotten pity or empathy. Just the "adoption is beautiful, you are so brave and altruistic" comments.

  6. Lord, those kinds of comments are the fucking worst. I always say: Not brave. Desperate. Try that sometime. Give them a reality check!

  7. So glad you are healing. What an ordeal.

    I'm still working on my own family origins story. My mom's mother was caught in a trap in Memphis (surrender or be declared unfit - only because she was having a financial struggle at the time but Miss Tann had a paying customer who's specs my mom matched well). Reading the news stories that came out in the 1950s in Memphis, I think how awful for my grandmother - what a horrendous pain in her heart each story must have caused, and no escape because she lived there. She never intended to lose my mom, never had another child and could not reunite with her husband, as she was so hurt it had happened (my grandfather was WPA and fighting the devastating effects of the 1937 Mississippi River flood across the river in Arkansas and didn't know how desperately she needed him). Anyway, it is a long sad romantic and complicated story and sorrowful. For both my mom (who believed she had been stolen until the day she died - close but not exactly) and for her mother. Your book "Hole in my Heart" and "The Baby Scoop Era" have helped me understand so much so much better. My Dad was given up by an unmarried mother who never told her other children that the Salvation Army was involved or the actual truth about the details of his adoption. The effects of the breakage of maternal bonds have filtered down with sad effects upon myself and my sisters. I am ready for TRUTH to prevail in my own family's stories but I know that will come with risks. I'm not looking forward to those. Fondly admire you for your courage and efforts re: the sealed records which have vexed me in 3 out of 4 states involved. TN only let loose because of the Georgia Tann/TCHS scandal which my mom was part of.

    Wishing you a speedy and complete recovery going forward.

  8. Before my reunion 18 years ago, I was an advocate for open records and was actively involved in an adoption support group (most were adoptive parents, a couple were adoptees, and another birth mother and I were the "tokens." I would talk about adoption with anyone who was curious. Since my daughter severed our relationship about 13 years ago, I've become a clam. It was always difficult to interject my story in a conversation (the easiest route was "do you have kids?" And I'd reply, "yes and no.") As I told Lorraine in an email conversation, very few people I've met since my daughter severed ties know about that chapter of my life, with my daughter out of life, why bring her up? Even with the increase in open records, it's still a painful topic of discussion. Most of the time the other person is sympathetic, a few judgmental (you shouldn't have gotten pregnant in the first place [true]), still others feel like they dodged a bullet. I cringe when I'm reading a novel or watching a movie and BAM! There's an adoption plot line--again. My relinquishment was a lifetime ago, I've managed to enjoy an ordinary life with its share of extraordinary moments, and my daughter isn't at all interested in them. Last month I sent her a succinct email alerting her of a health issue so she would have it for her medical history. It was clinical and formal, and I signed off with "I hope you're having the time of your life." No response, not sure the email was received, but I tried.

  9. I just thought of another really surprising response when I told a 40-something woman the topic of my memoir: My father runs an adoption agency in Florida.

    Oh. We both wandered off in different directions rather quickly.

  10. It's not that easy to talk to people about this, as most I have met aren't really aware of adoption. I told my Dr. that I was in reunion with my son, and described myself as a birth mother. She didn't understand, and we went back and forth - she asked if I mean "surrogate" mother? I pointed out that no, I had two children and had given them up for adoption. She seemed flummoxed and not able to know what to make of this information. I was very surprised, as I assumed that doctors encounter all kinds of people and practices in their situations. Perhaps they don't, or it is something that is omitted by a good number of patients, and just not spoken about. She wished me well, but seemed shocked and didn't know what to say. If a doctor (nonpartial observer) can be affected that much, I can't imagine sharing this information with people who I interact with at work or socially; it did scare me.

    Feel better, and best wishes for continued recovery!

  11. New and Old, a perfect example of why it is good to talk about this, and especially to doctors! Keep up the good work!

  12. There is always that moment...that gut check...where there seems to be a pause, an instant sizing up of the person I'm speaking to and simultaneously checking myself to see if I have the emotional energy to "get into it". Even then, I am guarded, and constantly vigilant, slowly meting out details, gaging reaction...It's exausting and I more often than not decide it's not worth it. I find much of what I decide to share is determined by where exactly I am in reunion, whether things are currently going well with my daughter or perhaps we've just shared or are looking forward to an important milestone in our relationship. I suppose I'm somewhat stuck in a cycle of determining my worth(iness) in how successful my reunion is.

    1. Exactly! I still do that...unless the subject of my last book is asked. Then I really have no whee to run, and since many of my friends are writers also, or in the business, the response may be more of a writer's response to the subject than purely on a gut level of emotion. But of course, it's always a bit of both.

  13. Do you have a way to find Vanessa Rodriquez who posted in March of 2017 looking for information on the daughter she gave up for adoption through The Adoption Center of Choice? We adopted her baby girl and have been trying to get in touch with her for years. Her email of bookietumor@gmail.com is no longer a correct email. Please help us so that we can help her get in touch with us we have sent letters and photos for years and were told by the agency she had moved and they didn't have her address, BUT, they lied to her and us.

  14. The last stranger I told in public was at a women's group my friend (another mother of loss) took me to several years ago. I was not prepared for her response - "How courageous that was ..." Taken off guard, I launched into my somewhat incensed "There is nothing brave or courageous about losing a baby to adoption. My daughter was taken from me by society with the same effect as if someone had stolen into her nursery and taken her from the crib." Probably not the best way to handle the conversation, I know.

    1. Your response was perfect. We need to educate people when we can. After an article came out about me as a first mother in Oregon's biggest daily, friends and acquaintances complimented me on my brave decision. One woman said to me "you know the kind of woman who gives up a child? A thinking woman." All these people meant well but I tried as best I could to tell them there was nothing brave or thoughtful in losing a child to adoption.

  15. I dunno about that. I think it may have been the totally appropriate way. Even if it put her off temporarily! You gave her something to think about and counteract the popular thinking about all us "brave" birth mothers who gave up our children because we "loved them so much." That is total agency BS perpetuated on society.

    1. Lorraine, i agree that it is absurd to love someone, particularly an infant one has carried to term, so much, that one is moved to give that baby away. I've contemplated that off and on ever since coming here. It's always bothered me and now i know why and i'd like to share.

      I'm a BSE adoptee, and as a child being told that my mother loved me 'so much' that she gave me up, and being told that by my adoptive parents who were trying to express their love for me and how we arrived at our awkward situation - this line gave me comfort. Loads. So did Santa. So did believing without question that if i said my prayers, always told the truth and shared my toys, i'd go to heaven (and presumably Santa and the Easter Bunny would appropriately reward me each year.) I grew up and grew out of needing those. but i do think it helped at the time.

      I don't think it's a good explanation. I still had it unquestioned in the back of my mind when i met my first parents. At least i approached the exploration of both sides of my family (first parents never married) with the happy assumption that they loved me, even if my presence caused and causes them pain. That assumption helped to nullify the need for a sensical answer as to why i was given up in the first place - the important thing was/is that we are in contact now and we love each other. Now as a jaded but much less needy near 50 yo adult, I can face the reality that there never was a good explanation for giving me away. I'm not making any sort of argument here, it's just my experience and i share it with good will towards all readers. Peace.

    2. ..."the popular thinking about all us "brave" birth mothers who gave up our children because we "loved them so much." That is total agency BS perpetuated on society."

      It's not just agency bullshit. It is also one of the coercive tools used to manipulate new mothers to relinquish their babies. It was used on me - rephrased to indicate a lack of love, as well as selfishness - if I kept my son.

  16. Some reunions do end up well. The following is a link to an uplifting story :


  17. I don't tell anyone...not cold tell anyway. I am done with this fight. I watch, wait and feel the pain, but will not enter the fray yet again. The last time, the woman stared at me as if I grew a horn and it was shooting pus at her.

  18. I have been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 18 years. My son was born 39 years ago. He was a tightly kept secret within my family until I married some years later, then divorced and stopped drinking. Part of my program involves sharing my secrets. The first time I did so was during a talk I gave at a meeting. Over time, it has become a natural thing for me to tell my truth.

    I am no longer married and I have no other children. My son petitioned the State of Wisconsin in April to request contact with me in April. The last few months have been an amazing journey of getting acquainted, almost like a courtship. Emotional support has been provided by my AA companions, who understand, even if they did not endure the adoption experience. Mike and I have developed a strong relationship, through email, phone conversation, texting, and one recent visit. I have 3 delightful grandchildren and a daughter-in-law. I live in a Detroit Michigan suburb, They live in Wisconsin. We do have some sports differences.

    I survived a serious hemoraighaic stroke three years ago so Mike needed an update on medical history. The stroke made me much more extroverted so nearly everyone knows my story, including the teller who notarized my release to the state of Wisconsin. I finally felt "real" on Mother's Day this year. I live in a senior residence now and most of my neighbors seem genuinely delighted to hear my story, and I do not care anymore what other people think of me. Except my son and his family. I am blessed. I am also surprised that only twice have people brought up their own adoption experiences and both were adopted children. BTW, Lorraine, I work on the Dearborn border for a car dealership near Michigan and Wyoming. And I pray your leg heals fully and quickly.

  19. Lori--that is pretty graphic! My er, favorite comment after I told an adoptive grandfather (whose son wrote a book about the trials of late-stage (aka, late 30s) IVF without success and adopting from Russia to avoid the dreaded other mother) that my daughter had lived with us during her high school summers and even worked at the ice cream place downtown, he said: You are our worst nightmare. Direct quote.

    Then the dinner hostess returned with the chocolate mousse and the subject was dropped. What I liked about it was his utter honesty. To add more to this story, the guy himself had a brain injury from an air conditioner falling on him from an upper window, and he was forgetful as well as hmmm somewhat unrestrained in his commentary. When I saw him again, I am sure he did not remember that a) I was a birth mother; or b) what he said.

    As fortune would have it, one of the two boys adopted from Russia shows signs of fetal alcohol syndrome and I've heard not such nice things about the boy said by the grandmother at a dinner party when happily I was not present!

    We all make our own choices about what and when to say. I can't escape it much because of being so public about it. So it goes. I knew what I was getting into, but that doesn't mean it is always easy or pleasant. When you jump on a soapbox you never really got off of it.

  20. I was just going to ask more about where you live, Kayne. It's easy to understand how your experience and support from friends in AA has smoothed the way for you to tell your story to just about anyone. I too, as you did, am likely to tell people like the person who notarized your release statement! I know not everyone can do it, but every time we tell our story, we educate the public that we exist and we are not hiding from our children.

    1. "not hiding from our children" that is a really meaningful statement in more ways than meets the eye. In my whole non-online adult life, I have only become aware of one parent (a mother) who relinquished a child during the BSE, and that was after having been outed to her as an adoptee from birth. (what followed was a quite uncomfortable conversation to boot.) I hear a lot of adoptees admitting they are adopted, it would be nice to hear even half of that level of admission by parents that they have children who were relinquished. It would go a long, long way towards normalizing those feelings that i was rejected and still am rejected in part, I could blame it on culture instead of my parents and their families.

      Adoption's not a crime, and it's sometimes touted as "such a wonderful, loving thing" so you'd think that my experience would be quite different, you'd think i'd have been running into self-admitted relinquishers all my life, even as a child. The only other time that i recall ever meeting someone else who gave up a child, was in my early 20s, at my first mother's home during a visit, she told me that there was a woman on the porch who wanted to talk with me. Turned out it was someone from CUB who had a ton of questions for me about whether she should look up her daughter - again, an extremely awkward, and uncomfortable for me, conversation followed. These are the only two conversations I've had throughout my life as an adoptee (and a non-parent) that have been with other first mothers, and i've had none with first fathers.

  21. I hesitate to tell people my story and the hardest thing for me was explaining things while I was pregnant for the second time. My kids don't look like me, they have their Indian father's colouring and most people do not think I could be their mother. It's always fun trying to answer questions when I pick them up from school though, especially because my 9 year old is not shy. He will tell people I gave birth to him and not care about what they think.

  22. When I opened the door to my son, I also vowed that he would never be a secret again. I tattooed the musical notes of a line from "Fire & Rain" on my wrist. "I always thought that I'd see you again". Whenever someone asks, I tell them our story. I've had two people tell me how sorry they feel for his mother (the REAL mother implied) that I came skipping back into his life. That became food for some self punishment but for the most part women have been genuinely happy for me and my son. Men seem a little unsure how to react. Lorraine is right. Our willingness to speak may soothe the hearts of parents and children who need soothing.

  23. Graphic, but true, Lorraine. I have never actually seen that expression until then... I don't care to repeat the experience.



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