Only one thing to do
“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 almost never goes to the brain, but his had). 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.