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.

This post was first published seven years ago today. As it turns out, it’s one of those posts that seems to be re-appearing at a time when I most need it, as I face my own uphill battle in surgery next week. (By the time this publishes, my surgery will be behind me, for better or worse.) Fortunately, my life is not at stake, as Jeff’s was when he made the remarkable recovery that I’m now glad I captured here. But long odds are still daunting even when life is not directly threatened, and most of us will have many times when we face long odds before the final, life-ending battle comes, as it will for all of us. In the coming days, every time I feel nervous or pessimistic, I’ll think of the Fairey Swordfish. I’ll think of Matthew. And I’ll think of Jeff.

The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Dorothy

    Dear Julia, wishing you a good recovery after surgery. I continue reading your posts and love your insights. Since Covid lockdowns I’ve at last retired from teaching piano at a Private school in Sydney after working there for nearly 39 years. Not sure where the time has gone but seem to be busy at home in the garden, Book Club, Garden Club, Church activities and catching up with friends, some I hadn’t seen before Covid. I spend time with my sister, daughters and grandchildren, Dexter 10 and Aria 4, whenever I can as they don’t live close by.
    I do hope you get to see your grandsons now and then as well. They bring such joy into our lives. I think of you often when reading even though I haven’t been replying for quite some time. Best wishes, Dorothy

    • Hello Dorothy, it is always such a joy to hear from you! I was thinking of you just recently and wondering how things are going “down under.” I’m so happy that you are able to spend time with your loved ones as often as possible. Covid was rough for everyone but with your children’s locations it was worse for you than for many. Like you I wonder where my time gets away to, but somehow it flies and I stay busy with this and that. The great thing about retirement is that a much higher percentage of what I do now is what I WANT to do! 🙂 I still have not ever made it to Australia but I have not given up hope of that and I am looking forward to taking you to lunch (or perhaps tea?) when I do get to see your beautiful country. Meanwhile thanks so much for being here and for keeping in touch. It means more than you know. ❤

  2. Susan

    Julia, i haven’t posted in a long time here, because I know it is hard for you to keep up with the comments. But I read everything you repost, and this is one that hit me hard again. You are in my prayers as you recover from the latest challenge with your own health. Sending you love!

    • Thank you Susan, I’m so glad you are here! And remember, it’s my turn to take YOU to lunch! So far so good on the most recent surgery, though we won’t know if the bone grafting was successful for about 5 more months. But in the meantime I have some nice fake teeth I can wear so I’m out and about. Don’t you love the weather we are having? My wisteria, columbine, roses, irises, snapdragons and peonies are bursting into bloom just as the azaleas and rhododendron start to fade. But I think I love the green trees most of all! Come by anytime you’re in the neighborhood! Speaking of which, I went back to Kingstowne the other day for the first time since I sold our townhouse there. It’s still beautiful!

  3. Sue


    I pray you are doing well. You have been strong through so much. I pray for your healing and peace. Thank for all the encouragement you provide. You are quite amazing! Take care.

    • Oh, thank you Sue, for your kind words of encouragement. As I tell everyone, we all do what we have to do to survive. To quote the poet Marge Piercy, “strength is not in her but she enacts it as the wind fills a sail.” I am so happy you are here with us, and I deeply appreciate your prayers. I honestly believe it is the power of people praying for me that has enabled me to keep going.

  4. Dear Julia, I hope your recent surgery was a great success. I’m praying for you.

    • Susan, thank you so much! So far so good, but we won’t know for sure until about 5 more months. However, I can say with certainty that the difficult decision to switch surgeons was a good one. This surgery has been at least ten times easier so far than the one in August was, and there are many reasons why. Suffice it to say, I wish there was some way (short of a really nasty online review) for me to caution others about what to do or not to do. But as my current surgeon told me, my case is a real outlier (“in terms of bone loss, on a scale of 1 to 10, you are an eleven”) so even the best of doctors could have taken the wrong approach, as my first surgeon did, and it’s unlikely that anyone else would have my same circumstances.

Thanks for encouraging others by sharing your thoughts:

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