Care Given to Caregiver

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This past week Ivan finally got some much-anticipated pho…it was pho-nomenal 😉

12:25 am. Harp glissandos fill the darkness – my alarm is ringing. I linger for a moment as I try to focus my eyes  before sitting up and groping for my phone in an attempt to silence the harps before they crescendo to an obnoxious fortissimo. Ivan is due for his next dose of Hycet at 12:30, followed by another at 4:30. I’m not qualified to administer either dose – it requires pouring an exact amount of the potent liquid into a tiny syringe, and I can’t even feel my left hand, much less help him push the narcotic from the syringe into his jaws, which are wired shut. The first night I spilled his medicine all over the bathroom sink, and surgeons are loath to refill medications that are hallucinatory and potentially addictive. I should know. I’ve been on it myself. But Ivan used to wake up not two, but three times a night to care for me, and he’s been my primary caregiver for the past three years. And so I insist on giving him his Hycet. Just as I flip on the bathroom light and begin squinting at the bottle and the syringe (and praying I drop neither), I hear a soft knock on our bedroom door. Mom and Dad pad in softly, bleary-eyed and concerned. Mom supervises me as I administer the medicine, and Dad will spot Ivan to the bathroom if necessary. They’ll be back for the 4:30 dose, too. The truth is that as much as I wish I could help Ivan on my own – even for just one task – I can’t.

I think that’s what I’ve come to appreciate (if that word is remotely applicable) about these past two months. It takes my brain longer to begin sorting traumatic experiences than most people’s, but I’m coming to realize that my stress as a temporary caregiver is a fraction of what Ivan and my family have faced for the past three years. True, I’m also more physically and mentally limited than they are, but I think the application is the same: no caregiver is an island, and no care given is as straightforward as it appears. At first I was embarrassed that Mom and Dad got up to check on me every time I administered Ivan’s midnight meds: cue me wasting an entire dose by spilling it in the sink. Plus, as I haven’t admitted until typing this very post, I take so much “sleepy” neurological medication myself that I easily could have slept through one of his doses. I can’t cook, I can’t drive, and I can’t do heavy housework, so my daytime “contributions” while we stayed with my parents involved sweeping, folding laundry, managing schedules, and keeping tabs on Ivan’s daytime needs (although my ability to meet those needs varied). As I watched my family work cheerfully with and around me every day, I realized they and Ivan had already been doing that for the past three years. I hope I’ve always understood that caregiving is a gargantuan enterprise, but I know I’ve never comprehended how relentless it feels, even for a few weeks.

God created humans to function in community, and while each member of my family contributed their part to the big picture, none of us was independently sufficient for this trial – especially me. Even we as a family unit weren’t completely sufficient, and remain incredibly grateful to all those who stepped in and provided resources when we found ourselves stretched too thin. I know this post reprises events from Ivan’s accident that we’ve shared before, but I wanted to contribute some final thoughts as a “care receiver” who tried on the role of “caregiver,” if only for a few weeks:

“A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” ~ Ecclesiastes 4:12

Beyond the Bite

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“I’ve missed you…”

 

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Proverbs 19:21

Happy Valentine’s Eve everyone! When I posted my last blog post on January 19, Grace and I were still staying at her parents’ house and our plan was to not move back home until I could chew again, which wouldn’t happen till my arch bar was removed. At that time, we were still working with Kaiser to set a date for that procedure, so we thought we had at least another two weeks with Grace’s parents. We ended up moving back to our apartment the next day.

Among the many obstacles Grace has to face every day are the lingering effects of her traumatic brain injury (TBI) which she picked up at the time of her accident. TBI comes in many shapes and forms, but since Grace’s is in her frontal lobe, her symptoms include difficulty with executive functions including planning, decision making, and emotional processing, among others. You can imagine how hard these past few weeks have been for her after my accident on December 15, when she had to care for her caregiver.

The morning of January 20 proved to be a turning point for Grace; as hard as her family had been working to care for both of us, Grace’s brain needed to return to her apartment, the place it was most familiar with and in which Grace could best function. This development took all of us by surprise, and required some problem-solving to figure out how to maintain my recovery diet now that we were in two locations. Grace’s family has continued doing everything they can to help us settle back into our “normal” pre-jawbreaking routine. Thank you guys!

It took Kaiser about another two weeks after our move to finally schedule my arch bar removal, which took place last Friday, February 7. I had originally opted for using anesthesia for the procedure, but ended up choosing the non-anesthesia route in order to gain three days of appointment scheduling. Looking back, I’d have stuck with the anesthesia option; but the procedure worked out, and I got to enjoy an In-N-Out double-double with grilled onions, mustard fried, with animal fries and a chocolate shake, the next day (I had to cut up the burger, but it turns out deconstructed In-N-Out is still amazing).

The days following my procedure were eventful, to say the least. On Saturday, Grace’s sister Anna got engaged to her now-fiancé Robert! We are so happy and excited for them and can’t wait for them to embark on this new chapter of life. Talk about a pre-Valentine’s Day surprise!

This past Monday my ENT doctor confirmed that my right ear canal is healed. Praise God! However, I have since developed multiple sores on my gums and tongue as a reaction to my arch bar removal. One of my maxillofacial doctors has prescribed a special mouthwash, so hopefully that will help, since the sores have actually prevented me from eating and talking normally.

They say life is a rollercoaster, and it feels like Grace and I just traversed a section of the track full of loops and drops and unexpected turns. But the final destination is more than worth it! Thank you all as always so much for your prayers and support. We mean that more every time we say it. God blesses us through you, and we continue to pray that God would use all of us to reflect His light into a world that needs it.

To Chew or Not to Chew

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Throwback to when I wore bunny rabbit ice packs after my jaw surgery!

 

Hi everyone! Happy Sunday 🙂 Fun fact: Grace’s family are ardent Packers fans, and as I type this the Packers-49ers game has just started. Where does my football allegiance lie? With Arsenal FC.

Yes, it’s been rough going for several (read “many”) years for us Gunners fans, but who knows…

Anyway, here are some updates on my jaw recovery:

Last Monday was my first day back at VCS. Although I’m not teaching classes yet, I’m spending more and more time at school and in the classrooms. My coworkers at school have gone above and beyond to make accommodations for my recovery. Thanks guys! 🙂

Last Thursday I had a follow-up appointment with my surgeon, who said that despite the severity of my fractures my recovery is progressing surprisingly well! Praise God. I still can’t chew, so smoothies and blended meals are still the order of the day, but hopefully in two weeks or so I’ll have a procedure to remove the metal wiring in my mouth (in my gums, actually) and return to the Land of Solid Food. No visas required.

Also, at a previous follow-up appointment my ENT doctor confirmed that my right eardrum is ok! When I fell my jawbone punctured my ear canal outside the eardrum, which is why I was bleeding out of my ear, but the eardrum itself is ok. I am very thankful for this outcome especially as a musician and music teacher.

So between now and the procedure in about two weeks, my surgeon gave me a jaw stretching exercise to regain full range of motion. I’ll continue to work on building up stamina so that I can return to full-capacity at work. Our current plan is to stay with Grace’s parents until I’m back to regular food.

Grace and her family are tired but doing ok, still taking care of me cheerfully and willingly! Grace is still dealing with seizures and migraines, and a heavy workload from school, but she continues to demonstrate incredible inner and outer strength and beauty every day. She inspires me and I learn so much from her!

Thank you all as always for your prayers and support. God brings us into each other’s lives so that we can encourage one another and spur each other on to good deeds. May God continue to shape us to become more like Jesus each day!

Speaking of speaking…

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Thanks so much to some young friends for these fabulous cards! 🙂

 

Hi everyone, thanks so much for your prayers! These past few weeks have been interesting, to say the least, but I am at a point where I hope I can write to you all (somewhat) coherently 🙂 .

My recovery is progressing on schedule. Praise God! I just finished my first round of post-ops, and the results are surprisingly positive. All the doctors I’ve seen have commented on the severity of my jaw fractures–not to mention my concussion, loose teeth, and punctured ear canal–so I am very thankful that the surgery on December 23 went well, and that so far I am hitting all my recovery milestones on time. Also…I can now talk! My jaw is no longer wired shut, so speech is back. But I still can’t chew for another month, so my daily nutrition consists of smoothies, shakes, and blended foods. I may be marginally responsible for any recent increases in Jamba Juice stock.

Thank you so much for all the tangible and intangible expressions of love my family and I have received from all of you! Grace and I are still staying at her parents’ house, and despite the exhaustion of caring for me and helping Grace, we have all been lifted up by your care and generosity. From the prayers, messages, cards, gifts, and food, to the overall encouragement and well-wishes–thank you! Truly the Body of Christ is a wonderful thing to be a part of.

Grace and I will continue to keep you all updated as we can. Grace has resumed her online Master’s degree after her Christmas break, and I will start to ease back into my responsibilities as I am able throughout these upcoming weeks. Happy New Year to everyone, and may God be glorified more and more through us as we move forward this year!

Post-Surgery Update

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So Anna bought Ivan that shirt…

Thank you for your continued prayers this week! Ivan’s surgery went very well. The procedure lasted two hours, and the surgeon was able to reset Ivan’s jaw without inserting any permanent hardware, which was our best-case scenario. His jaw is wired completely shut for the first two weeks, which means he’s limited to a liquid diet and “talking” through the Google translate app on his iPhone. (Any advice on how to switch “her” voice to a man’s voice would be greatly appreciated!! 😉 ) The surgeon will loosen the wires on January 3rd so Ivan can talk a little and eat some thick liquids. If everything continues healing correctly, Ivan should have the surgical “braces” removed in around four weeks and then begin jaw therapy to regain normal range of motion.

Ivan also has a follow up with an ENT surgeon on January 6th, which is when we hope to learn the extent of the injury to his right ear. Ivan’s inner ear was too swollen and obstructed by the jaw fracture for doctors to be able to get a clear view after the accident, but they believe he will have healed enough by January 6th for them to diagnose the original injury and decide if there is anything further that needs to be done.

Ivan’s been a trooper this whole Christmas week. He has yet to offer one word of complaint – either about the pain, the diet, or the restricted talking – and he also remembers to type “thank you” into his phone and be concerned about what’s convenient for us in spite of his high levels of pain. As a connoisseur of pain and the one who manages his pain medications, let me assure you…his pain is real.

I’d like to close this post with a giant thank you to our families. My family stepped in before I’d even discovered there was a problem that night, and they’ve been God’s hands and feet ever since. Changing Ivan’s bandages, preparing liquid “meals,” taking care of our apartment so I can stay with him, getting us to and from Kaiser, waking up in the middle of the night just to make sure I’ve woken up and given him his pain meds…this list really deserves its own blog post. Ivan’s parents have been here as much as they can to visit and encourage their son, and have brought him plenty of comfy clothes that can fit over his head, as well as broth and bottles and bottles of Ensure (at the top of the ever-shortening list of things he can actually eat). And finally, thank you, our church and blogging families. We learned three years ago that caregiving in the wake of an accident is a full-time job, and your acts of service have freed us to focus on Ivan’s needs in ways that would not have been possible were we doing this on our own. Thank you for taking time out of your own busy holidays to minister to us!

On behalf of the Utomo-Crosby’s, we hope you’ve had a Merry Christmas, and we’re thankful for all the love and prayers that brightened our own Christmas this year. Praise God for a positive surgery outcome, and we’ll continue to keep you updated after Ivan’s post-ops at the end of next week.

Tis the Season for Asking “Why?”

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A season of liquid only does have some rewards…

“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

I don’t know how much pain was coursing through Ivan’s body after he woke in a pool of his own blood on our bathroom floor, but I do know it produced a very abnormal reaction. His first response wasn’t to care for himself. It was to care for me. Most people with Ivan’s injuries would have been too disoriented to think straight or to care much about anything even if they could. Ivan was not only thinking straight, but he was opting for the slowest possible route to the hospital so that I wouldn’t wake up. He worried that if I found him covered in blood I would panic, turn on the wrong light, and possibly have a seizure. So he did what I could never have done. He remained completely silent, texted Dad what had happened, and also told him NOT to call back so I wouldn’t wake up. Then he grabbed paper towels and began cleaning up in case I did wake up and check on him.

I knew Ivan had been feeling sick, but I was puzzled when I heard a thud, then silence, then scrubbing when he headed for the bathroom that night. I decided that he must not have made it to the toilet in time, but I finally got up to investigate when the scrubbing went on longer than it should have. I was horrified to find him seated by the bathtub, blood running out of his right ear and down the front of his clothes. It was not until later that I realized the clean bathroom floor under my feet on was the result of the past twenty minutes of scrubbing. When I asked him what happened, he only shook his head and pointed to a string of text messages on his phone. I could deduce from the texts that Ivan had fallen, that he thought he’d damaged his ear drum, and that Dad would probably arrive in around five minutes. What I couldn’t understand was why Ivan wouldn’t talk to me. The truth was that he didn’t want me to realize his mouth was full of blood. He finally managed to request some clean clothes, but as I scrambled into our bedroom I felt myself starting to get queasy from the trickles of blood I had seen. I’ve never done well around injuries, and I still get light-headed even after my own accident. Get yourself together, I thought. There’s something very wrong with Ivan and all you have to find is socks. Think of everything he’s done for you over the past three years. Just as I started blacking out, I felt Ivan beside me. “You’re going to vomit,” he forced out between clenched teeth. “Sit down in closet. I’ll get socks.” He’d come looking for me.

Ivan had fully clothed himself by the time my parents arrived at our apartment a few minutes later. I was still in the closet, trying not to be sick. The last thing I heard before Dad ushered him into the hall was Ivan telling Mom to go find me in the closet.

After three years of December crises – first my accident, then generalized seizures, and now Ivan’s surgery this afternoon – I’ll admit to being a little jaded by the season that celebrates “Peace on earth, good will to men” and “God with us.” But reflecting on the accident story above also makes me wonder if it’s a micro picture of what the Christmas season is all about. Those well-known phrases portray Christ as our ultimate caregiver-redeemer, a role that cost that baby in a manager a lifetime of humanity and culminated in torture on a cross. No flawed human illustration could claim any real parallel with the miraculous story of our salvation. But as I fight the urge to ask “Why?” while waiting for the man who’s cared for me the past three years to go into surgery this afternoon, I have to thank God for reminding me about the gritty side of Christmas. Christmas came at an unknowable cost to Christ. And though my family’s Christmases feel unreasonably painful from a human perspective, I’m thankful that they remind me of the priceless eternal life bought by that baby in a manger.

Pre-Surgery Update

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Ivan in one of the rare moments when he’s not hibernating..

Hi everyone! Thank you for all your prayers and support over the past few days. I can’t tell you how encouraging every gift, comment, message, or text has been to us all!

Here’s what we know so far about Ivan’s injuries. He sustained severe fractures to his upper right TMJ in two places. One of the pieces that broke off appears to have punctured his right ear canal and may also have damaged to his right ear drum. The ear diagnoses are approximations based on his CAT scan and a partial visual exam. There is too much swelling and residual blood to see all the way into the ear, so we will have to wait till the TMJ fractures begin healing to know for sure. Ivan also fractured his jaw on the lower right hand side, but this fracture is less serious. There is some dental damage is well but, like the ear, this will be difficult to determine until his jaw has begun healing.

Ivan is scheduled for jaw surgery on Monday morning (the 23rd). The surgery is quite significant but it should be noninvasive if it goes as planned. Nevertheless, there is a chance they may have to place a small piece of hardware in the lower jaw depending on how things go in the operating room. Recovery time will also be hard to predict before we get to Monday. We will be living with my parents for the next couple of weeks since my own disabilities prevent me from giving him the care he needs round the clock.

As for Ivan, he has not complained once about the pain, nausea, dressing changes, or liquid diet…or the fact that those aren’t going away any time soon.  Just thought y’all should know. 😉

As always, we greatly appreciate your prayers as we trust in God’s larger purpose for this trial.

“So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” ` 2 Cor. 4:18

Ivan’s Accident

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Hello, blogging family.   Today I’m writing a post I never thought I’d write. Today I’m writing to ask for prayer because Ivan had an accident of his own.

Ivan picked up a stomach bug over the weekend and fainted around 2 am Sunday morning, fracturing two bones in his jaw and puncturing his right ear drum. Dad rushed him to the ER around 2:15 am, and he was discharged later that morning to rest at home and follow up with an ENT specialist today. It appears Ivan will need surgery to reset the fractures in his jaw, but we aren’t yet sure to what extent or who will perform the procedure. These are the major points we hope to cover in his appointment. He is being incredibly brave, and it makes me incredibly sad to watch the man who has stood by me through thick and thin go through something even I can’t imagine.

For now, we greatly appreciate your prayers! I will keep you posted as we learn more, and will also share a longer post with his full accident story after things quiet down.

Also, a giant THANK YOU to my family who have moved us to their condo and are helping care for Ivan (read “doing all the tough jobs”) until he’s more stable. We’d be lost without them!

Sometimes it’s harder to write this than others, but I know God is good and this is still part of His good plan for us.

Three Years Since the Third

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“Celebrating 11 months of marriage, and looking forward to a month of concerts with my best friend!” – This was the caption Grace posted around Thanksgiving three years ago, when we thought we’d have a whole month of Christmas concerts ahead.

 

Dear friends, today marks three years since December 3, 2016, when God allowed a rogue driver to drastically change the course of our lives. In preparation for this post, Grace asked me if we are where I thought we’d be three years out from the accident. She asked me how I felt at the three year mark, and where we see ourselves going from here. My initial response to her questions was, “I don’t know.”

When something as terrible as Grace’s accident happens, the stakes in life suddenly get much higher. The balance between “needs” and “wants” shifts pretty dramatically and almost all your time and energy becomes devoted to keeping the boat afloat. At least something like that has been my experience. Have I had time to pause and feel what the accident has been like? Yes and no. I wouldn’t describe myself as shutting out the painful feelings associated with hardship, but at the same time my experience has been one focused mostly on just trusting God to get me and Grace through each day.

Wake up, go to work, go home and help Grace, do my own doctoral schoolwork, sleep.

The reason I don’t know if we are where I thought we would be at the three year mark is that Grace’s recovery has not followed a typical upward trajectory. To be sure, we went through the initial critical phase and have long since been in the plateau phase; but Grace has had some unexpected seizure developments during that plateau, and we are still working with neurologists to get a better understanding of what is going on with her brain and what we can do about it.

Where do I see us going in the next five, ten years? Health-wise, who knows. Hopefully we can continue to tweak Grace’s medication so that she won’t have a seizure every time she encounters a bright or flashing light. Lifestyle-wise, both Grace and I are in school, so I would look forward to finishing our degrees as our next significant life goal.

As difficult as the past three years have been, I wouldn’t change a thing about them. Not because I wouldn’t rather have had an easier, more pleasant time; but because God’s always in control and His plans are always best. Hard times do have a way of helping you realize just how much you need to rely on God and His help.

So if I could share, here are some reflections from the past three years:

  1. The accident was not an accident. God is Sovereign, and everything He does is for His glory and the ultimate good of His children (Rom 8:28).
  2. Human understanding is frightfully limited; God’s understanding is limitless. The “accident” didn’t change the course of Grace’s life as God had planned it; it only changed our understanding of how we thought Grace’s life should go (Prov 16:9).
  3. No one is entitled to an easy life. In fact, Jesus promised us that we would have trouble on earth (John 16:33). But Jesus also reminded us that He has overcome the world with its many sorrows and troubles.
  4. We all know there must be a greater good out there. The brokenness of this world serves as a cosmic sign pointing toward the redemption offered to us by God (Rom 8:19-24).
  5. This life is short; Heaven has no time limits. All the suffering we experience now cannot be quantified against the infinite goodness of living in perfect harmony with God and those who have accepted His gift of eternal life (Rom 8:18).

We could go on and on about God’s boundless goodness, mercy, and grace. The more I reflect on these things the more grateful I am that God would love us enough to care for our eternal wellbeing so passionately. He didn’t leave us to suffer; He took on our suffering and made something beautiful out of it (Isaiah 53:5).

Friends, we are grateful for your prayers and support thus far and can’t wait to keep moving forward with all of you. Please know that Grace and I also pray for you, that God would help all of us serve Him well and bear faithfully the tasks He has entrusted to each of us during our time on earth. Our prayer is that God would continue to renew our hearts and minds each day so that we will better know Him and understand His purposes throughout both the big and little moments of this life (Phil 3:8-10).

Remember, the battle has already been won! Rest in that truth, and don’t forget to let others know! 🙂

A Model Newt

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“Well, I got better…”

Hi everyone! I can’t believe that it’s already time for Winter Break. My first quarter at SCAD was the hardest academic quarter I’ve ever encountered, but I’m grateful that it ended better than I was expecting. I should also be grateful that God popped my ego bubble before it floated too high, but I’m not that spiritually mature yet.

My first class was “Freelance Writing for Publication,” and covered researching and writing magazine articles.  While most of the ten weeks was devoted to writing a variety of articles, one of our final units involved creating a professional website. I built a site but I delayed publishing until Mom got back from Europe. I needed a good head shot, and her iPhone generated much better photos than mine could.

Once she was un-jetlagged, we celebrated Mom’s return and my last day of school with a photo shoot in Willow Glen. The crisp air, morning light, and gorgeous leaves over-delivered – as did Mom’s camera.  We only had about twenty minutes before my migraine took over, but those were more than adequate to capture what we needed.

They say you have to take about 50 pictures to get a couple of good ones, and we may have gone overboard since my family isn’t exactly photogenic and I did get hit by a car. You can imagine my delight when I scrolled our selection and discovered that the number of “keepers” was surprisingly high. Somehow, in spite of being on too much medication, living mostly in the dark, and having way too many seizures, I was looking pretty good. Mom took it one step further and said I looked like a model.

And then Ivan called at lunch.

Few husbands call their wives every single day, which is one more reason Ivan is about as perfect as anyone gets this side of Heaven. My phone rings at 11:20, I ask how his classes are going, he answers vaguely with something like “Pretty normal,” and then I start prying. But I sensed something was different this past Friday when Ivan brought up his classes before I could ask.

“So, umm, some of my junior highers found the blog.”
“Really? That’s great!”
“Well, I’m not so sure…it has lots of stuff on it and… ”
“Come on, I always post nice stuff about you! Maybe it’ll help them see you a role model.”
Silence.
“Well, which ones were they looking at?”
“They found the one about you being a newt.”

For those of you who don’t remember, the “Newt Post” came after I was hospitalized at Redwood City for a 24 hour EEG. It begins with the famous Monty Python quote and a picture where I look very much like a newt, then progresses to a picture of me looking partially dead after having had 23 seizures in a row, then concludes with another picture of me looking like a newt. At least I’m smiling in the newt ones. The Newt Post is also from July 2018. All  my visions of a professional website were immediately replaced by images of junior high boys nudging each other and air-dropping links to the post on their school iPads. Post-Millennial note-passing at its finest.

How did they make it back that far??? We don’t even have a table of contents.”
“I don’t know. All I’m telling you is they did.”
“Well, did you tell them to stop?”
“Of course. But you know I can’t control what happens outside of class. Besides, you did post that. ”

He was right. I did post those pictures. I’ve posted lots of embarrassing pictures of myself during my post-accident journey, but I’ve always assigned them a higher purpose than comic relief. Then again, who am I to stipulate how and when God can use what I post?

In a masterful stroke of Providence, the website is still not live and Ivan’s efforts to convince his students that Mrs. Utomo looks and acts pretty normal just took a giant step backward. I haven’t had the heart to check how many recent hits that Newt post has gotten. But I do hope my heart is in a better place than it was this time last week. Blogging should be an act of faith, both in what I choose to share and in where it ends up.