Only one thing to do

The Little Biplane that Could: obsolete or not, it changed history. Fairey Swordfish by By Tony Hisgett, Birmingham, UK. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Little Biplane that Could: obsolete or not, it changed history.
Fairey Swordfish by By Tony Hisgett, Birmingham, UK. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“We are so outnumbered there’s only one thing to do. We must attack.”
Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham

Admiral Cunningham spoke these words before the Battle of Taranto, in which a small number of obsolete planes (the Fairey Swordfish biplanes) conquered a mighty fleet of ships and ushered in the ascendancy of naval aviation.  I loved this quote the first time I ever saw it, but in recent weeks, it has become especially meaningful to me.

History has shown that underdogs can overcome extraordinary odds, and it happens in many endeavors other than warfare. One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, often writes about well-known events and people as seen through a different lens than typical journalism offers.  In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, he discusses how courage, ingenuity and determination can win the day against all reasonable expectation.

The first week of this month Jeff and I were preparing to go on a transatlantic cruise I had reserved almost a year ago as a celebration of his retirement after 30 years in the Air Force. We knew at the time that he might never be able to go, but we looked forward to it in hope, and as the time drew nearer, it seemed as if the dream was going to come true. We were excited, but nervous; would Matt be OK while we were gone? Would Jeff and I relax enough to enjoy it?

We were never to find out. On April 6, Jeff was diagnosed with a large brain tumor that was affecting his balance and vision so dramatically he could hardly walk. Our dream of celebration had become a nightmare in the form of an exceedingly rare metastasis (Jeff’s type of cancer, we had been told, almost never goes to the brain, but his had). I asked the doctors why they had told us in the beginning that there was no need for brain scans because the cancer would not go to the brain. They answered, “People with his diagnosis and situation rarely live this long. So we don’t really know what might happen at this stage.” After facing the grim prognosis of colorectal cancer that spread to the liver and lungs, Jeff now has yet another battlefront in the long fight for his life.

Fortunately, the doctors at Walter Reed have come to know him well enough to be confident he might be able to beat the odds yet again.  Though patients are seldom offered neurosurgery in such situations, there was immediate consensus among the oncologists and neurosurgeons that surgical removal of the tumor was an appropriate course.

Jeff had an hours-long craniotomy on a Monday, and left the ICU on Tuesday afternoon.  The post-op MRI and scans confirmed the neurosurgeons’ opinion that the tumor was completely removed.  It astonished me that they released him to go home on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the surgery. By Saturday morning he was cooking breakfast and doing laundry (despite my having done three loads myself the day before), determined to live as normal a life as he can, for as long as he is able.

Jeff is up against very daunting odds, but in the final analysis, we all are.  Each of us, in some way, is called upon to make the best of less than optimal circumstances, and for some of us, we’ll be called to do that again and again. The next time you feel outnumbered and hopeless, remember that improbable victories can only happen when underdogs refuse to surrender.



  1. Cherie

    How joyful and good was that breakfast!!!!! I am so happy to hear of him,once again, beating the odds! I have been praying every day for Jeff and thinking about him as I look at the picture you sent of him with his electobes( or something) on his head before the surgery. His tenancity is helping Ron too. Every time I tell him about Jeff and his obstacles, Ron seems to try a little harder. He has been asking about him a lot. Please tell him that he is touching our lives as he fights for his. Love to Jeff, Matt and you each day. Love and Light. Cherie

    • Wow, Cherie, if Jeff’s tenacity can help Ron hang in there, it’s a double blessing! Thanks so much for sharing this encouragement with us. I just read your comment to Jeff and I know he appreciates it. I am deeply grateful for your concern, prayers, and kind thoughts and words. I keep you and Ron in my prayers as well. Love and light to you too! (Or should I say “you two”) 😀

  2. Jim Beavers

    I want you to know that I am praying as Jeff faces yet another battle.

    • Thank you Jim. There are times when I can feel the prayers of others giving me strength. That may sound strange to anyone who has not experienced it, but there will be many who can identify with what I’m saying. We are blessed to have the prayers of people such as you! Thanks for being here with us all these years (wow, YEARS! hard to believe)

  3. Hallelujah!
    You and Jeff certainly have courage, ingenuity and determination, and praise God, so did the doctors at Walter Reed!
    Love to you!

    • Thanks Susan. There are so many people (doctors and staff) at WRNMMC who are heroes in my eyes. For those who work in the medical field in any capacity — you have no idea how much even a single act of kindness will be remembered. And for all who have connected with us through this blog — including you! — words can’t express how you have strengthened me all this time. Love, gratitude and many blessings to all of you! ❤

  4. Jack

    What a terrific story of inspiration and hope Julia. My money is on you, Jeff and that cruise; may it be a glorious one!

    On my weekly travels, I’m reading the biography of Michel Thomas, a holocaust survivor who went on to fight with the French resistance, became a Nazi hunter, escaped so many certain death experiences that you think the book to be fiction. While Thomas had his issues, his overwhelming sense of purpose sustained his life and made him incredibly bold and compassionate. I don’t know either of you (but boy, I wish I did), but believe there’s a little Michel in you both. Sail on!

    • Thanks for telling me about that book, Jack. I just ordered a free sample to be sent to my Kindle. I so appreciate your kind words. It truly helps to know that others are cheering us on!

  5. Bobby Harris

    Beautifully said. You all remain in my prayers.

    • Thank you Bobby. We are so grateful that you and Randall have been part of our lives. Your example is inspiring.

  6. Mary Ellen

    Heavenly Father, please bless Julia and her family. Shower them with your love, mercy, grace and healing powers. In Jesus Name I pray. Amen. Julia, your resilience is inspirational and you have helped me “Defeat Despair” since your blog first began.

    • Mary Ellen, it helps so much to think that anyone may have been blessed by whatever I write here. As I’ve said so many times, I have received so much more than whatever I may have given. Thanks for your prayer (and prayers) and for lifting us up!

  7. Carolyn

    This is such a wonderful blog to read. Our reunion is still on for next year. Jeff is such a strong person, so happy he is home and helping with chores . Sorry you missed your trip but happy you were not at sea when this happen to Jeff. Terry and I are planning to leave on a trip to Colorado in two weeks. David is giving us a week in a condo, this is a late wedding gift. Terry loves the mountains, so this is good for him. He needs a vacation for all he does for me. Hope we stay well. I will let you know how it goes. You all take care and tell Jeff he can just do nothing sometimes. Terry has a hard time doing that. Love and hugs to all.

    • Carolyn, ever since I learned that you and Jeff had both been hit by the “c” word in the same year, I have held our reunion in my mind as a milestone that we WOULD reach together. YES we are fortunate that the effects of the tumor were made known before we sailed. No telling what would have happened if we were one or two days into an entire week AT SEA surrounded by nothing but water when Jeff became unable to walk! Even in the worst of times, grace and mercy shine through; I can cling to that even when I am blinded by the shock and grief of new troubles. I can say to myself, “OK, you’ve been here before, and God always provides…”

      I am so excited to think of you and Terry having a week in Colorado! It’s so beautiful there. What a great gift for David to give you! Yes, Terry and Jeff are so alike, in more ways than one, I think. Both prefer to let us do most of the talking 😀 and both have a hard time NOT doing. But tell Terry I said for him to be extra-lazy for me while you all are in Colorado, take lots of mental pictures and mental audiotapes of the sights and sounds for me. Maybe even some digital photos too! 😀

  8. Amy

    I love this post. It is true we must all keep up the fight in all things. Not just our health but in our daily life to be good parents, mentors, friends. To be all that Christ wants us to be and show the world that we are. In our strife we must turn to the Lord and pray that in all things we are ready. I know I have a long way to go in this but I will attack until I win the day. I am keeping you and your family in my prayers. I am sorry you missed the cruise but so glad that doctors were willing to remove that tumor. Hope I don’t sound preachy just wanted to say how appropriate I think your post is to all things. We can overcome.

    • Amy, I feel a deep kinship with anyone who is determined to remain steadfast even when hit with devastating blows. YES we can and shall overcome, as the song says. We have been blessed with many examples throughout history to prove it. I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite poems, “If” by Kipling, which I quoted in this post. Thanks for being here with us!

  9. I’m still saying prayers for you both. He has such an attitude that I think he can beat this. It’s all in the attitude. Giant hugs

    • Thank you Marlene! Your prayers and giant hugs have been a joy and a solace.

  10. Sheila

    Julia, thank you for the update, as we once again see the determination that Jeff has. After reading your blog, I shared with our family. John commented, “God provides strength in such moments that cannot be explained.” 💛

    • Sheila, it really does defy explanation (although that never stops me from trying 😀 ) and the strength provided to us has often come through loving people such as you. Thanks for being such a devoted part of the support we have found here. ❤

      • Sheila

        Julia, hope y’all are having a good weekend. We’re spending a rainy Sunday IN our “tin-condo” and relaxing, watching the race. Guess we’ll get back to GC shortly. Would you share again the vitamin that has helped Matt for so many years? I can’t remember if it was magnesium or calcium, and the derivative of. Thank you! You have a new subscriber, too. Not sure, but he may be known as “Wiley-Grit”. 😂

        • Sheila, it’s magnesium taurate, 125 mg (Matt takes two capsules and this is the brand his doctor recommended). It’s been 11 years ago now, but since he started taking that supplement instead of Benadryl (or sometimes even stronger meds) to help his sleep, he has stayed stable and slept as well or better than he does on meds. There have been absolutely no side effects, as far as we can tell, and every doc he’s had since then has been fine with him taking it. Though it was prescribed to help his sleep, we found out later that some claim the taurate has a beneficial effect on stable heart rhythms, which have been another health issue he’s faced over the years.

  11. And right here dear Julia we have such a wonderful example of how, while we are busy fighting in our own corner, our fight becomes a point of light and inspiration for everyone else.
    Thank you for sharing this chapter today. xoxo

    • Thank you Pauline. The rainbows I see in my kitchen (and beyond) each day are continual reminders of your warm wishes and cheer sent from literally the other side of the world! No matter how many times I think about it, it’s still a wonder to me. 🙂 ❤

  12. HarryS

    An amazing story Julia In more ways than one.
    Your fellow sojourner.

    • Thank you Harry. What a story we’ll all have to tell at the end of this journey of life. If telling it still seems important. 🙂 I am so happy you are here.

  13. wisconsinwellnesscounseling

    i continue to pray for you and Jeff and your family members. What an incredible blessing that Jeff was able to go home so soon after the surgery and that he is able to do some normal chores and activities at home!

    • Thanks N – we need and appreciate your prayers. Jeff’s stamina is still not where he would like it to be, but I see gradual improvement each day. As always, his physical healing is a source of amazement and wonder, even as his moods (and mine) are subject to the cumulative effects of exhaustion, worry and grief. On the whole, though, I think we’ve done quite well, and I credit the prayers, kindness and support of all of you for helping us keep going.

  14. Julia, it’s still amazes me that Jeff is already home and that he is up and about doing the every day tasks of life. Sometimes “normal” feels better than any vacation, holiday or trip. Just being able to get up in the morning and do some of the simple things in life can feel wonderful, especially when you’ve been through so much.

    It was a blessing that you were not at sea when Jeff lost his balance and vision. You were able to quickly get good medical care. I’m sad though, that the trip fell through. It seemed a wonderful way to celebrate Jeff’s retirement. I hope a rescheduled trip is in your near future. Sending love and light.

    • Hi Alys, YES we feel fortunate that we found out about Jeff’s brain tumor when we did. It was a bitter disappointment at first, but when we started to consider what might have happened, it was hard not to feel as if we had just dodged a bullet. Jeff is (understandably) still negative about planning anything in the future, but I hope that he will feel more optimistic as time goes on. He’s not even ready to buy tickets to Atlanta to see Owen Ramon (our second grandson due to make his appearance in mid May). Right now we’re just taking a day at a time and enjoying the beauty of “normal” — which, as you note, can be quite wonderful. Thanks for being with us! P.S.we have now consumed everything in the amazingly generous shipment y’all sent, and every bit of it was FABULOUS! Many thanks. ❤ ❤ ❤

      • That is understandable, but how exciting to have a new grandchild about to join the family. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to meet Owen Ramon once he’s here. I should have said “typical” instead of “normal”. I tend to avoid that word as it’s mostly lost all meaning, other than the scientific application of a norm. It comes from living outside of the norm, as a child and a parent, most of my life.

        I’m so happy that you’ve enjoyed the delicious treats from our blogging circle of friends. We’ve all been with you in spirit every moment of each day. xo

        • Alys, I really and truly do feel your presence, and not just when I’m eating and drinking your generous gifts! Thanks to all of you for being here with us.

          We are very excited about the upcoming birth of Owen Ramon, who joins his recently-born female cousin Ellie Carlyle in being namesakes of their late great-grandfather (whose name was Carlyle Ramon H.) Plus, they are both Fire Monkeys like their MeMe/Aunt J, hee-hee. So of course they are both very special to us even before we meet them.

          YES, “typical” is a much more appropriate phrase than “normal” in many cases. I learned that distinction years ago from a speech therapist who avoided the word “normal” and described “typical” development as opposed to those whose early speech patterns were delayed or limited, or whose behavioral profile was different from other students. Now that people with disabilities are no longer shut away in institutions, it is becoming more apparent that some degree of disability is far more common– and thus “normal”– than was commonly believed even 20 years ago.

          • That makes me smile, Julia.

            There is a book on my shelf that I will get to eventually called called Neurotribes. I heard the author interviewed on NPR and started to follow him on Twitter. I ordered the book for fear I would forget the title, but haven’t jumped in. Here’s the link:

            • Alys, thanks for this link – it looks fascinating! I just checked out the ebook at my library. I would love to read more about Hans Asperger in particular. In 1993 when Matt was diagnosed as having AS, neither I nor anybody knew had ever heard of it, except that a friend in CA had told me she thought Matt might have it. I would always have to explain to people what it was. To most people it sounded bizarre that a second grader could have some sort of neurological condition that made him incredibly sharp in some areas (memory, esoteric knowledge, reading ability) and yet tremendously disabled in others. Matt’s developmental pediatrician was a wonderful support, although some people in the Honolulu school system were not all that fond of him. One staff member told me some felt that “he gives parents false hope” because he loved and understood kids with disabilities. Parents adored him. But I digress…

              • Oh brother! When did hope become a bad thing? I like this guy already. He sounds far more supportive than anyone we encountered in the grade school years.

                We enter grade school about 12 years later than you, and in Silicon Valley were AS seems to be more prevalent. There is still a long way to go. I’m glad you had someone on your side.

                • Alys, I think some of these folks felt that hope was a bad thing if it meant we expected our kids to be taught in ways they could learn — which is very difficult when there are so many different needs to be faced in a single classroom. Dr. Gallagher was top-notch and really helped me survive the hurts that seem inescapable when trying to help a “different” child survive the often-cruel world of school. A few years after Matt’s diagnosis, AS became much more widely known about as people learned more and realized how familiar the traits sound to most of us. Probably we’ve all known people who fit the diagnostic description, long before anyone knew about it. I can think of one boy I went to school with in high school who was pretty much a textbook case, and life was hard for him, and also for his brother, who had no disabilities and was a popular athlete. People can be so cruel.

  15. raynard a shellow

    Julia as I look out my bedroom window I start singing The sun will come up tomorrow. The last few months or so I had two old 1970s TV commercials in my head. Two oil companies. Sunco I can be friendly and Esso staying young. As a Christian the first applies. The second one You feel young around young people and watching a good old movie or cartoon lol.Volunteer fire department havin a monthly BBQ.Besides they come when you need them. Most importantly we are called to be friendly not religious and spiritually snobby. Be encouraged and bless and most importantly you and your family are in our prayers.

    • Raynard this is just too uncanny. At the exact moment you were writing this, I was reading the emails you sent a couple of weeks ago with the cake photos. So while I was enjoying a couple of extra-large slices of virtual cake, you were singing one of my favorite songs from “Annie.” 😀 Just mentioning ESSO makes me feel like a kid again. When I was very young my mother’s parents owned a little country store with gas pumps in front, and Esso was one of the brands they had at one time. It actually stood for “Standard Oil” (S.O.) as I recall. Then it changed to ENCO and then to Exxon and the rest, as they say, is history. I bet you can remember Gulf Oil too. They were my favorite gas station because they used the Disney characters in advertising and I sometimes got little toys when Daddy would fill up the car (in those days the attendant always pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, etc.)

      I so agree about the spiritual importance of being friendly and open to people. “How can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love people, whom we have seen?” (only a slight paraphrase). BTW mentioning the volunteer fire department — my sister’s husband, who is a minister, has been a volunteer first responder for almost as many years as he’s been a minister. If you are ever at their home you might hear the radio crackling with calls coming in, and when you go out to dinner with them, he might not get to eat his, if he gets called out before it arrives at the table. But he never complains, and he takes his unpaid job as seriously as the one he gets paid to do. As Fred Rogers sings, “there are many ways to say I care about you.”

      Speaking of which, thanks so much for the prayers. They help us to survive. I really believe that.

  16. Julia…PTL!!… for Jeff’s successful surgery. Praying healing mercies for him. And the strength for you to remain faithful and diligent in your care for your family.
    Congratulations for the new grand son. ❤

    • Thanks Merry. We are hanging in there, and starting to get really excited about the new grandson. I hope we will be able to go see him in June. We appreciate your kind thoughts and prayers.

  17. Rene

    This week at work has been a steady crescendo of perceived unfairness at work (testing) which boiled over on Friday; reading your words has made me see how small it really is. Your perspective is a wonderful gift. You and Jeff are in my prayers and my thanks to God.

    • Thanks Rene. I hope your work situation gets a bit less volatile; your job is hard enough without adding such issues into the mix. Sometimes I think our education system has lost its way with all the well-intended but ultimately disruptive policies. BUT no matter what is or is not done, it seems almost every workplace has a few people who feel, sometimes with justification, that the system isn’t fair. It can be very bad for overall morale, even among those who don’t share the feeling of being slighted. As you say, sometimes a health crisis that hits a friend or loved one can help us realize that even very important issues aren’t the true foundation for life or happiness. Thanks so much for caring, and for your prayers.

  18. LB

    Julia, just yesterday i realized that I had not touched base in awhile. I’m so sorry for that, and hope you know that even though I may not make contact, not a day goes by that I don’t think of you, and of Jeff.
    Amidst all of the challenge, fear, and trauma, I’m so glad that Owen Ramon will bring smiles to tired faces.
    Love to you all!

    • LB, no need to apologize. One thing we all understand is how quickly times slips away in the full lives we lead. I feel your support and caring even when we don’t touch base, but it’s always nice to hear from you. ❤ Thanks for being here.

  19. Julia and Jeff, you are always in my prayers. I am so inspired by you and honored to be a friend. xo I’m here with understanding heart, opened arms for a hug, listening ears filled with compassion and a voice which only speaks with kindness and loving support. And just so you know, I always root for the underdog…I have great faith!

    • Thank you M! It is a great comfort to know you are here for us. Underdogs know best how to appreciate victory! 😀

  20. blseibel

    I’m glad Jeff is able to battle on and successfully attack this foe. I’m sure having you in his corner makes him a stronger fighter .

    • I hope it does make him stronger. If nothing else it gives him lots of sparring practice, hee-hee. ❤

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