Learning to Float

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I never was a good floater.  I remember my first swimming lessons.  The teacher had me lay out on the water while she supported me with one hand under my back and the other under my legs, with the instructions to trust her and just relax.  How could I relax, knowing that she would take her hands away and I would sink like the Titanic?  It was nearly always the same.  Try as I might, either my feet would go first or I would panic and fold like a jackknife before planting my feet safely on the bottom of the pool. (Remember, the water was chest deep at the most!)

So what does that have to do with our life here in the Congo?  Let me try to explain.  I have never denied that I am a bit of a control freak.  “Strong Willed”, “Outspoken”, “Helicopter Mother”, “Sergeant Major”. (I’m sure there are other terms that have been used to describe me, but you get the idea.)  However, my experiences here in the Congo are changing me… or at least I hope they are.  I have observed that in this country, the people have very little control over what happens to them and as a result I suppose, seem to be able to accept things pretty much as they are.  I think I used to see this as somehow wrong, and that they needed to make more of an effort to take charge of their lives and make things happen. But what I have realized after the events of the past week, is that they are masters at “floating”. In other words, they have learned to relax and trust in what they refer to as “God’s Will”. In one of my favorite books,”Light in the Wilderness”, Catherine Thomas states, “If we can accept that-which-cannot-be-changed as a reflection of what God would have unfold, then we can have peace.”  Well this past week for us, has been a real life tutorial of that theory and guess what?… I have learned she’s right!  Just so you know… this is a long one.

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Our adventure began well enough.  We were even unexpectedly accompanied to Johannesburg by the Drapers, who were planning on having a few medical needs taken care of there.  They were in for a few surprises of their own however.  The above picture is at the Lubumbashi airport, where young boys eagerly await anyone who will pay them to shine their shoes.  Brent has always been a stickler on well shined shoes, but even though we came with an ample supply of shoe polish, I don’t think he’s used it once, thanks to our frequent visits to the airport.  This was a first however… He had two of them shining his shoes at once.   As an aside,… see those beautiful suitcases beside Brent?…  They’re the Draper’s that they bought new before coming on their mission.  Beside the normal wear and tear, they will go home bearing a few extra signs of their life here in the Congo. When they weigh your bags up in Kasai, they just write the weight right on your suitcase, with a black felt pen in big letters… 18 kg., with “ELDER” thrown in for good measure.

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I thought I would add this in here just because it’s a good story.  A few weeks ago we were driving a couple of sisters back to their apartment after a fun dinner out.  It was dark as we drove down one of the main streets in Lubumbashi, when we noticed a lot of police (there are always a lot of police), blowing their whistles and waving all of the cars over to the side of the road.  It was easy to see all the lights coming behind us, as a procession of big motorcycles and hummers accompanying a big black SUV, passed us as we waited on the side of the road.  When the last light had passed, I gave Brent the all clear and told him we could go now.  We pulled out into the street and had gone only a couple of feet, when a couple of open hummers with soldiers in the back drove recklessly close to us, yelling something and shaking their guns at us.  Before we knew what was going on, one of the vehicles escorted us rather roughly to the side of the road (as you can see from the above). How were we to know that we had pulled out into the middle of THE PRESIDENT’S procession through town?!!!  When we pulled to the side the second time, a jeep pulled up beside us and a soldier jumped out (you could tell he was not your regular run-of-the-mill soldier).  He ran up to the side of the car asking what embassy we belonged to.  He had already determined we were no threat to the safety of the president, even before Brent explained that we were just missionaries and thought the motorcade had finished!  He turned without even listening, jumped back into the jeep and sped off… and that was the end of that!   We were left with nothing more than a few scratches on the car and two visibly shaken sister missionaries in the back seat.  I’m sure all the other motorists and people on the street who witnessed the whole thing, were scratching their heads and wondering who the idiots in the little red SUV were.  Oh well!

2015-08-13_22.23.32Okay.  Back to our trip.  The next night and morning was spent in Kigali, Rwanda, where we experienced the calm before the storm so to speak…  English, paved roads, a variety of delicious food and the delightful company of Elder Leibel and Sister Torro.  Our plan was to drive to Uvira, DRC that day and so, accompanied by Frere Jean-Paul, we set off on what we were assured would be a five hour drive, most of which would be on the beautifully paved roads of Rwanda.  What we got however, was a fourteen hour “trek” which became part of a five day odyssey.

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Driving through Rwanda, we were impressed with the way every bit of land seemed to be used and everyone we saw appeared to be anxiously engaged in productive work of some kind.  We were amazed to see people all along the way keeping the sides of the road, as well as the land along it, neat and clean.

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Look at this amazing highway!  However, we learned first hand why they call Rwanda “Land of a Thousand Hills”.  I have never in my life had a ten hour drive of nothing but twists and turns and ups and downs.  Now… as someone who can get car sick driving across the flat prairies of Canada, I thought I was doing pretty well keeping things together so-to-speak, until about hour six.  See those beautiful, deep ditches in this picture?… Well… let’s just say some were not quite so beautiful after I paid them a visit.  The good news?!…  Rainy season is just around the bend!

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After gathering as much information as we could, we opted to take the route recommended by Google Maps.  We even checked with our sources on the ground and got some “almost” first hand information that the road was newly complete.  Our first mistake occurred at about hour two, when we stopped and asked the people standing at a fork in the road, “Which way to Bukavu?”  I was pretty sure they had no idea, but when they said to take the road to the right, we did just that.  I at least knew that we should be heading in a west/southwest direction and questioned several times whether we were going the right way if the morning sun was on the right hand side of the truck.  We reasoned that perhaps with all the twists and turns, it just seemed like we were heading north.  No… by the time we stopped for further directions, we learned that we had indeed traveled north… an hour and a half north!  We were within spitting distance of Goma!  (Goma has a bit of a reputation for gorillas.  Not the kind of gorillas I would like to see.)  The only thing we could do was to go back the way we came.  That little mistake at the fork in the road added three hard hours to the trip!  Once back at the fork however, we discovered two things that made all the difference. “One“- Brent’s phone has a compass on it, and “Two“- my ancient Ipad that has never had a SIM card (in other words, I only have connectivity where the internet is accessible) was tracking our position on Google Maps, in the middle of Rwanda! How does that work?!!!  Anyway, there we were, a little moving dot on a map.  You have no idea how much comfort that little dot gave us, now that we could actually see exactly where we were.  And oh!…  That finished road?… Well… Not so much, as you can see from the above and following pictures.

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At least there was one other car foolish enough to be travelling on that road.  We played leap frog with them for miles, when they all-of-a-sudden turned around in front of us and headed back the way we had come.  We wondered why, and then some miles later we realized it was almost dark, with Bukavu still a couple of hours away.  The people in that other truck were Africans who know you need some place to stay before it gets dark, and they were heading back to the last town we had passed.  We were worn out (Brent from all that intense driving, and me from ten hours of being car sick) and worried.  We needed to find a place to stay, but where?  I was SO done, I didn’t even care where! (I’ve gotten used to some pretty rough places.)  We pulled to the side of the road and asked someone if there was a hotel anywhere nearby.  Just a few miles away, and down a windy little road, we were eagerly welcomed to a guesthouse on the eastern shore of Lake Kivu.  Thank you Heavenly Father!  We were even given the VIP suite!  I know that because it was written on the key chain!

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If I hadn’t been quite so sick, we could have rounded up some neighbors and had a dance party in that room.

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We were impressed!  The toilet flushed and they had running water… kind of.  I think the tub was for looks only, but we are used to that.

We ate our typical travel meal of chicken and fries, watched the sun set on Lake Kivu, and dropped into bed.  Our meetings in Uvira were scheduled to begin at 10:00 the next morning, and so, with no real sense of how long it was going to take, we were up bright and early and on the road by 5:30.

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Remember “Gorillas in the Mist”?  I always wanted to see those gorillas… but I guess that will have to wait for another lifetime.

About an hour before the Rwanda/DRC border, we passed a UN convoy coming from the direction we were headed in.  Hmmm…  We decided they must have been coming from Bujumbura.  No problem!  We’re not going to Burundi!

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A couple of hours later we had crossed the border into eastern DRC, into a little town called Bugarama.  We can’t help but feel bad for these people we have grown to love.  The minute you cross the border, which by the way takes waaaaaay more than a minute, you know you’re in a different country.  No more pavement, unbelievably rough roads, extreme poverty, and “police” looking for a way to pay the bills.

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Okay… Now I have to admit, this part was kind of fun.  Some months ago, the bridge in Uvira was damaged by the heavy rain and is no longer usable, for vehicles at least.  But thanks to the dry season, you are able to drive across what is now not much more than a stream.  It was a piece of cake… for some of us.  As you can see, it has become somewhat of a spectator sport.

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The tricky part was not so much crossing the river bottom, but getting up the other side!  It was a lot steeper than it looks and many cars had to make several attempts.  The guy above lost his back bumper on his fourth or fifth attempt but just picked it up and seemed to be able to stick it back on, for the time being anyway.  The crowd watching from above loved it and let out a big cheer when he finally made it up the other side.

2015-08-15_02.01.42_2This was going on at the same time, just a few feet away.

2015-08-15_02.02.13And this is why there are no vehicles crossing that bridge.  I’m not sure I’d like to be standing on it either.

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Here are three of the six elders working in Uvira.  We arrived at the church building late that morning, as happy to see them, as they were to see us.  After a three hour Zone Conference, Brent had his usual string of interviews, as well as a 90 minute meeting with Priesthood leaders from Bujumbura and Uvira.  In the meantime, I sat with the women and young girls outside trying to teach them “Cat’s Cradle”. (I brought several pieces of string with me just for that reason, and let me just say that I won’t do that again.)  I don’t know where Brent get’s the strength and energy to do all he has to do (I do actually) but I get pretty tired myself just being his companion.  This was another long day.

2015-08-15_09.36.15This is the view from the window of our hotel room at the northern most shore of Lake Tanganyika, on the outskirts of Uvira.  The waves made it look and sound like the ocean, which it could almost be!  Here are a few facts on Lake Tanganyika.

  • It is the second largest freshwater lake in the world.  (12,700 sq mi)
  • It is the world’s longest freshwater lake.  (418 mi.)
  • It is deep!  Up to 4,820 ft deep!

After a very long hot day, we were grateful for our room with a breeze from the lake to cool things off.  Though it doesn’t look it from this picture, the weather here is beautiful, so beautiful in fact that it could be a vacation spot.  But, as you might be able to make out from the picture, that razor wire pretty much says it all.  The thing is… it does nothing to stop the ones you really need protection from… the Police!  We were soon to find that out.

There are no pictures for this next story.

At about 2:00 am we were fast asleep at the one and only hotel in Uvira, when there was some banging on our door.  (I think we were the only people staying there.)  It was the “police” telling us to open the door and let them in. They said they needed to check our papers!…  Yes… that’s exactly what the police in most countries do, isn’t it?  With nothing between them and us but a rickety wooden door and a skeleton key to lock it, Brent calmly responded with a, “No Monsieur.  We are not going to open the door.”   I was so tired (sick and tired of the police always “menacing” us), that I responded with some of my pathetic french about how they needed to let us get some sleep, and rolled over to do just that.  For the next ten minutes or more, they remained outside our door, insisting we let them in, with Brent just as insistently refusing.  They eventually left and as I was dozing off, I realized Brent was silently sitting on the edge of the bed.  “What are you doing?”, I asked. “Praying”, he said.

It wasn’t until the next day, as we were discussing the previous night’s conversation through the door, (I was sleeping, so that shows how worried I was at the time.) that I heard about this part of the interchange.  Brent said to them through the door, “This is not right Monsieur. The police in Canada would never do such a thing.”  To which one of the “police” quietly responded, “Monsieur… This is not Canada… This is The Congo.”

We really don’t know why they decided to go away and leave us in peace.  There was nothing to stop them from coming in and doing whatever they wanted.  There is no one there we could have appealed to and no one to which they would have to answer.  It’s a city in the eastern Congo of about a half million people, basically with no law!  Well… Let’s just say we definitely won’t be doing that again!  And oh yes… Thank you, to all who remember us in your prayers.  Heavenly Father is listening and once again was watching over us.

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For the other three times we had to cross the river, we were guided to an easier crossing which was much less traveled.  The problem with this one, was that it was pretty much blocked by the two trucks you see above.  They were bogged right down in the mud, but with a little expert driving from President Thomas and a 4-wheel drive, we sailed across. (Well, not quite.)

Sunday morning was spent in two Sacrament Meetings, a couple other meetings and several interviews, before we were able to say good-bye to Uvira.  We were SO anxious to get out of there but at the same time, wanted to do all we could for them, knowing we may never be back.  After that, we had a fireside set up in a city called Bukavu, which was a only a three hour drive away but necessitated crossing the border into Rwanda and then back again into the DRC.   I cannot accurately describe the process and I mean p-r-o-c-e-s-s, to get across these borders.  Let’s just say that everyone who possibly can, wants to get in on the action.  You wait… wait some more… stand in line… answer questions… wait some more… smile (or not)… wait while they painstakingly write down all your information by hand into an old notebook (there are stacks of those old notebooks “filed” on the floor behind them)… and allow everyone with a stamp in their hand, to use it.  Miraculously, we were only a half hour late!

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This was the group waiting for us in Bukavu.  There is no organized branch here in this city of around three million, but there were about 70 people waiting for us that Sunday evening.

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I think the setting made President Thomas feel right at home.  He basically told them the story of his youth and conversion, and encouraged them to be faithful and patiently wait. Bukavu is no longer in our mission boundaries, so there really is not much we can do for them, other than let them know they are loved and not forgotten.

That night we felt like we were on the final stretch of a five day race, with the end almost in sight.  All that remained was tomorrow’s drive to Kigali and then on to home.  I will admit that we had our reservations about the drive.  After all, the only thing we knew for sure was that we were definitely not going to return the same way we came.  But, with the aid of Brent’s compass and my Google Map (yes… that little dot continued to show us exactly where we were), we were confident that we would find our way.  One of the faithful members of Bukavu, Frere Christian, came early the next morning to help us cross the border and make sure we headed off not only in the right direction but this time, on the right road.

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Once again, we went through the routine at the border to leave the DRC.  Somewhere in the waiting process I decided I might as well wait in the car as not, and took this picture of one of the many women trudging (never has that word been more accurately used than here) up the hill to Bukavu.  I was amazed at everything about them… their age (I know that some were even older than me!)… their loads! (some were literally bent in half to carry not just the bulk but the weight)… the strength of their necks as they strained to keep both the heavy load on top of their head, as well as the one on their back stabilized.  You can see how the strap or handle of the load on her back, is positioned on her forehead, so the weight of the load is shared between her neck and her back.  This is a long, steep hill that they have to climb, which I am guessing is why they do it like this… and they usually have their hands full to boot!  This picture doesn’t even begin to show the loads these women carry, but just as I was getting started with the pictures, the border police spotted my camera and informed me it was against the law to take pictures at the border.  Well, there was no surprise there except that she (the border police) was actually very nice when I expressed my admiration for the strength of these amazing women.  She didn’t even try to get any money from us!

A few yards further down the hill, we had to get out again and stand in line to enter Rwanda, which we assumed would go without a hitch.  Nope!  It didn’t.  Something about single entry visa… Canadians on their naughty list… and “apply on line and in about a week you should have the visa.”  There was absolutely no changing their minds, and all we could think about was getting to Kigali so we could catch our flight home to Lubumbashi the next day.  Plan B, was to try a different border crossing and see if we had better luck there.  Of course, this meant the whole routine again.  We had to go through the process to get back into the DRC, drive to the border crossing at the other end of the city, go through the process to leave the DRC, were denied entry to Rwanda again, and went through the whole process to enter the DRC… AGAIN!

You know what the most amazing thing about all of this was though?… We discovered, that we were beginning to learn how to float!

Well, luckily there was a Plan “C”.  We called Justin, our mission office manager and the one we always call to get us out of scrapes, and he was able to get us two tickets out of Bukavu to Lubumbashi the next day.  Why didn’t we take that flight in the first place you might ask?  Well, it happens to be on an airplane with less than stellar ratings, but at this point… we didn’t care!  We just wanted to go home!  With the tickets secured, we went to find a hotel for the night and to just “be” for the rest of the day.  We were shown to the nicest hotel we had stayed in in months.  Who knew?!!!

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This is the view from our balcony, at the far south end of Lake Kivu.  It was a beautiful!

2015-08-17_23.35.14For Brent, the tender mercy was this!  One of the best equipped workout rooms of any hotel he has ever stayed at, and I mean in the world!  They had free weights!  As we went to check the room, I saw the look on the “fitness master’s” face as he sized up Brent. His name was Tresor and I could tell he was excited when he and Brent fixed a time for the next morning’s workout.  The next day, when I got down there to do my little walk on the treadmill, I found Brent training the two other men there (that’s Guru on the bench), as well as Tresor.  They loved it almost as much as he did!

2015-08-17_23.44.37Brent and Tresor.  He asked for Brent’s email so they could keep in touch.  What a nice kid!  (I just can’t get these Congolese to smile in a photo.  They don’t think it’s cool!)

That night, I am happy to say, was comfortable, quiet and uneventful, with no police banging on our door.  The next morning, we wondered why we were instructed to be at the airport three and a half hours early, but hey… the Saga was almost over and we weren’t about to take any chances.  We were the first ones there, even before the agents in fact, but in true Congolese fashion, that didn’t matter a bit.  As usual, we who were there first… were the last to be processed.  But you know what?… By now, we were becoming really good at “floating” and it didn’t phase us a bit.

2015-08-18_02.09.34We could have managed our own suitcases, though not nearly as well as these two men did, but work of any kind is in such short supply here.  We were happy to help them for helping us.  By the way… that big black suitcase was not ours.  It was left behind by one of the missionaries and weighed about 60 lbs!

A few hours later, after a couple of stops that included sand runways and goats, we landed safely back in Lubumbashi.  I wanted to kiss the ground.

So what did we learn from this besides knowing that we never want to go back to Uvira? We learned a lot actually, or at least I did.  It sounds awfully self-centered to say so, but I almost feel like this trip was not so much for the members and missionaries, as it was for us!  I was reminded on day one, that fighting for control in a situation where we basically have none, only seems to make things worse.  And that if we really do believe that the Lord’s hand is in all things, then it follows that “whatever is, is right,” and if we accept that, we can then begin to feel peace.  To quote Catherine Thomas again, “In a sense, then, each thing that happens is a test of our consecration and willingness to submit.”…  You see?!… We had just been given a crash course in learning to float!  Along with the memory of my childhood swimming lessons, came a favorite scripture that spoke to me the first time I read it as a teenager.  I knew even then that it spoke of many things I was not.

And  now I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive.     Alma 7:23

“If we were to take this subject of “what is” to the next level of appropriate response, we might have to acknowledge that everything and everybody in our life is our teacher, placed there by the Providential Hand for our blessing.  That realization would require us to be grateful for everything that happens.”  Catherine Thomas

So, am I an expert “floater” now?…  No… Not really… But what I do know, is that the better I get at learning to relax and trust in God’s will, the more I am filled with peace.  And just so you know… Yes, I am thankful… very thankful… to our kind and loving Teacher, for all that I have received.

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Sunrise at Lake Kivu

About carethomas1

Mother to six. Grandmother to nine. Dislikes bugs, camping, sitting and waiting. Likes to talk, eat, free agency, peace and order. Loves dogs, dear friends, and family (not necessarily in that order). Grateful for the trust Heavenly Father has in me, to ask me to come here and do this, with the one I love most.
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9 Responses to Learning to Float

  1. Chris says:

    “I knew it was the VIP suite because it was written on the key” not only is that funny it’s true. Their really good can be your really good if your “floating” but it takes a better person than me to do it.

    Like

  2. kate says:

    I can never describe my feelings as I read your entries mom. I am so amazed and proud at all you both do and who you are. I am so grateful for your honesty, insight and testimony. We always pray for you and are so grateful for the Lord watching over you. I loved seeing dad in that gym, knowing what a tender mercy that is for him. Really, you would never expect a remote hotel in Africa to have any gym let alone one of the best dad has been to. So grateful. I love you so much!

    Like

  3. 3Kidsloveduke says:

    I just adore your posts and the comments from your family. There is so much love in your family!! Missing you and praying for your safety and good health through your travels.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I just checked again to see if there was a new post, and there was! I guess September has been a busy month because I usually check every few days, and your post has been here for 3 weeks! Anyways, there are so many things that I really loved in this post. So many blessings and tender mercies. That story about dad praying and telling the policemen that he was not going to open the door, gave me chills. Definitely Heavenly Father watching over you and dad. And that is a miracle that your iPad was tracking where you were! honestly! just last week I was driving on new roads here in south okc and my gps wouldn’t even work! I loved seeing those picture of dad in the gym, too. You can tell that he loved it 🙂 so nice for him. I can’t believe those roads! and that cars just need to cross over them! you and dad will have quite the culture shock upon your return. I remember how strange it was coming back from Russia, and that almost doesn’t compare to this! Anyways, these stories you shared are just reassurances that Heavenly Father is watching over you always and keeping you safe. I am so grateful for you and dad and your example. Love you so much!

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  5. Janna Bennett says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these miraculous stories and for sharing your testimony. It has been wonderful to read your blog. My in-laws will be reporting to you soon for their mission and I am so grateful to your posts so we can start to picture at least a portion of the amazing part of the world in which they will be serving.

    Like

  6. Kari Schwitzer says:

    First off, Happy Birthday Care!!! I hope you are enjoying a great day in the DRC, my wishes for you this birthday are speedy internet, no run ins with the police and a delicious birthday treat!! As I read your blog today I was blown away (once again) by the experiences you’re having. Such a different world than we know! Thank you for sharing them with us and for allowing us to learn and grow through your experiences. I love this Gospel!! I love seeing the members and missionaries in Africa working so hard. They are such good people!! They are beyond blessed to have you and Brent there. You are so faithful, kind and hard working….not to mention fun!! I am in awe of the things you are doing and the lessons you are learning. Take care and know how much we love you!!

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  7. Nancy Bullock says:

    i love your descriptions of the different experiences. We can so relate. You are doing great work and the people are lucky to have you both.

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  8. Sarah says:

    This was so wonderful to read!! Amazing stories, and you write it all so well! I feel like I’m there! It’s hard to even know what to say… I can’t imagine. Heavenly Father is blessing you and protecting you. And us because of everything you’re doing. Love you so much!!!

    Like

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