I learned to fear breasts from Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. One eye lensed in blue plastic, the other in red, I ducked their pendulous trajectory toward my cardboard 3D glasses and prayed for B-cups.
I learned to fear tongues from Gene Simmons. In 1978, Elvira—resplendent in her raven mullet—introduced the made-for-TV film KISS Meets Phantom of the Park, starring the members of the hard rock band who take on an evil inventor to save an amusement park from annihilation. At eight, I recognized Magic Mountain’s roller coaster on the screen—the same one for which I lusted, standing tiptoe under the painted line that read, “You must be this tall to ride.”
I remember nothing else about the film except for Gene Simmons’s tongue. In his white-painted face, black makeup wings framing his eyes, it emerged from his mouth preternaturally long and large, brandished like a weapon against enemies and impressing me as violently obscene.
Up until the sight of it, I lounged in my best friend’s sunken living room on her orange shag carpet, both of us devotees of Elvira’s weekly B-movies involving flesh-eating ants and The Blob. After the tongue, I persuaded my friend to stay outside roller skating, instead.
Gene Simmons’s Tongue
Fans and detractors still retain a fascination for the KISS singer’s tongue after four decades. Some say he had the sublingual frenulum—the flap of skin under the tongue—severed to enable extra mobility and extension. Others believe he had part of a cow’s tongue surgically grafted onto his own.
A decade after the tongue’s terrifying appearance in Phantom of the Park, Oprah asked him about its length on her talk show. His response: “It’s long enough to make you my closest friend.”
Several years later, he launched a men’s lifestyle magazine titled Gene Simmons’s Tongue. It lasted five issues.
A Family History of Tongues
My great-grandparents ran away separately as teenagers to join the circus, and later, developed a comedy act for the vaudeville stage. My great-grandmother, in particular, instilled in her offspring the necessity of cultivating a party trick—a skill, the more bizarre the better, to trot out during potlucks and holiday celebrations.
My great-grandmother could put over a dirty joke like nobody’s business. Well into his sixties, my great-grandfather juggled and stood on his head. My mother did a fine imitation of Steve Martin’s King Tut dance, and my sister could imitate perfectly the sound a dog makes when it’s chewing its fleas.
My brother and I could both touch the tip of our nose with our tongue. He has Down syndrome—poor muscle tone and an especially large tongue. I had no such excuse, but I appreciated the kinship our similar talents provided. But after the KISS movie, I kept my tongue inside my mouth and learned to play the spoons.
Tongue in Cheek
Throughout my twenties and thirties, and now my forties, I’ve read and reread J.D. Salinger’s novels and novellas and short stories once a year. I greet whole sentences as old friends, lingering over his bouquets of blooming parentheses, the malapropisms upon which some of his stories—the ones about children, in particular—depend.
Too many times to count, I skimmed right over a paragraph from Catcher in the Rye, the one in which Holden Caulfield’s reading a magazine left on a bench. He describes one of the articles: “It said if you had any sores in your mouth that didn’t heal pretty quickly, it was a sign that you probably had cancer. I’d had this sore on the inside of my lip for about two weeks. So figured I was getting cancer. That magazine was some little cheerer upper.”
Later, my husband read me Salinger’s books while I lay in ICU drugged to the gills. I have no idea, still, whether he skipped that paragraph or not.
Bite Your Tongue
In our early forties, my husband and I shared a midlife crisis after adopting our daughter from the foster care system and discovering her numerous special needs. We sold almost everything, rented out our house, and moved with her to Costa Rica.
I didn’t want to go. Right before we left our empty house, our beautiful third of an acre of Douglas firs and oaks, depression walloped my immune system and I got sicker than I’ve ever been in my life. After weeks, I recovered, and we wandered around a new country trying to figure out where to live. Three months later, disillusioned and homesick, we came back to the states and took an apartment while we waited for our tenant’s lease to end.
Around this time, I realized I could no longer eat Cliff bars. Their rough texture hurt a tiny sore spot on my tongue. “I must’ve bit it,” I told my husband when he saw me wince and set the bar aside. “Guess I’ll have to eat soft food until it heals.”
This happened in February, but reentry into our old life and our daughter’s health problems preoccupied me, and I didn’t make a dental exam appointment until July. Our family dentist is tall and geeky and bespectacled. He talked very little in the three minutes I saw him twice a year. But on this visit, he paused over my complaint about the pain in my tongue. “I think it’s a chipped tooth,” I told him. “It’s sharp, and it won’t stop cutting me.”
He looked into my mouth with a flashlight, then put a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Oh, mama,” he said with genuine sorrow in his face and handed me a referral to an oral surgeon.
“You’ve never smoked? You’re a runner, a vegetarian? You drink—what—half a glass of red wine a night?” The surgeon looked down at my medical history. “It’s thrush.”
Everything about him gleamed with bravado—his perfect smile, his gelled black hair, his cheeks ruddy with good health or alcohol. He prescribed two weeks of thrice-daily lozenges.
“Call me back in two weeks if it doesn’t clear up.” He pressed a prescription into my hand and his dark eyes shone into mine. “You’ll be fine.”
I sucked on the lozenges—not quite minty, chalky in texture. At the end of two weeks, the lesion was even more irritated. I didn’t call the surgeon back. Instead, I dabbed straight tea tree oil on my tongue, whenever I remembered. It hurt to talk. I compensated by talking less.
In September, we went on a camping and kayaking excursion up at a mountain lake. My husband brought Cliff bars. I couldn’t eat mine.
“The pain’s too bad,” I explained. “I’d rather be hungry.”
“Call our dentist,” he told me. “Get another referral.”
“You haven’t done anything about that lesion yet?” My mild dentist barked into the phone. “Call this number, now.”
I called. Within twenty-four hours, I lay on a chair in the surgeon’s office staring at a framed photo of the doctor borne sideways and aloft by four beautiful hygienists. He didn’t close his curtains when he tipped back the examination chair. “That’s a big one,” he said, standing up from my open mouth with admiration in his eyes. “We’ll do a biopsy tomorrow.”
“It can’t be cancerous, right?” I said. “I mean, I don’t have any of the primary indicators.”
I omitted the fact that my husband and I, because of his own chronic health issues, didn’t engage in oral sex. This guy looked like he received oral sex on a regular basis.
The surgeon raised his eyebrows. “There are conditions that mimic cancerous symptoms,” he told me. “You might have one of them. But be prepared. You should have come in earlier. Don’t worry—the guys in Portland will fix you right up.”
The next day, he did the biopsy. The surgeon and his hygienists dispensed with small talk and moved with a fluid, robot efficiency. Within a minute of my walking into his office, I was covered with a heavy blanket and gassed up. I emerged from a twilight anesthesia laughing and crying in a hallway chair.
“I’m not going to die,” I giggled as my husband lead me out to the car. “Right?”
“It’s impossible that it’s cancerous,” he assured me as I grew more lucid. “You’re so healthy. You’ll see when the results come back.”
Speaking in Tongues
Also called “glossolalia,” the phrase refers to syllables that humans can almost recognize, but not quite. Church-going folks over the ages have been moved to speak in tongues, channeling a mystical language believed to come straight from the Divine.
I listened to the surgeon’s voicemail on my cell phone. He spoke syllables, clear and sparkling with directive, but they didn’t coalesce into recognizable sentences. I leaned against a giant cement turtle on a sunny September playground, watching my six-year-old daughter play tag, and pushed “2” on my screen to repeat the message.
My mind struggled to comprehend his words, even as the muscles in my tongue pulled away from my lower left jaw to avoid the pain. At last, I understood.
I call my husband at work.
“Remember how you said it was impossible?” I told him. “Well, you were wrong.”
It was Stage 1, no oncologist needed. I researched the oral surgeon in Portland before we drove up to meet him. He was originally from Eastern Europe; I found a photo of him online in an embroidered white blouse, ready to kick up his knee-high black boots in some traditional dance. He was young, handsome. I dressed in my sweetest flowered miniskirt, a filmy peasant top with a black Spanx bra underneath, my own black boots in an effort to look cute and sexy, negating my festering tongue.
We left our daughter with my mother, and my husband drove the two hours to the doctor’s office. We listened to NPR and discussed the debt-ceiling crisis and New Jersey’s legalization of same-sex marriage. When we got out of our VW bug in front of the office, my husband gripped my hand and looked down into my eyes. “We can do this,” he said and led me, trembling, inside.
The surgeon was smooth-faced and mild-eyed. I grew rigid, breath held, in the padded chair as his latex fingertips probed my neck, my tongue. My teeth began to chatter. I managed one question between the convulsions of my jaw: “Am I going to die?”
The doctor raised his heavy black eyebrows and offered a serene smile. “We’re all going to die,” he said. “But you won’t die from this.”
He sat me up in the chair and described the surgery. I heard nothing but the roar of ocean in my ears, and signed the consent forms full of sentences that blurred in front of my eyes. “Will I be able to talk when this is all over?” I asked.
The doctor nodded. “Of course. You’ll just be a little tongue-tied for a while.”
My husband took notes; he broke his back twenty years before in a car accident and understood the lingo, the subtexts, the procedures. On the drive home, he explained what the surgeon and his team would do to me.
“In a nutshell,” he said, “they’re going to excise a dime-sized piece of your tongue and replace it with muscle and tendons from your left wrist.”
We fell silent, contemplating the wonders of modern medicine. He had steel rods holding up his spine. I’d have a piece of my arm grafted into my mouth.
Keep a Civil Tongue
The night before my surgery, my husband and I left our daughter with my mother again and drive up to Portland to prepare. I packed my J.D. Salinger books and recorded myself speaking. With a camera lens trained on my lips, I pronounced every letter of the alphabet slowly, enunciating so that I could watch the footage and remember how I spoke. I recited all the diphthongs, too, all the blends and all the consonants and vowel sounds.
In the movie My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins bets good money he can teach Eliza Doolittle to speak “like a lady in a florist’s shop.” Audrey Hepburn as Eliza breathes “ha ha ha” into a speaker tube, transfixed by her own luscious tongue in the mirror as a flame begins to lick across the script in her hand.
On the way to the hospital, I tried to joke with my husband about French kissing and my impending wrist-graft. “What if,” I told him, “you go to kiss me, and my tongue gives yours a handshake?”
We laughed so that we would not cry. And then I cried, anyway.
The Tongue Goes
The surgery took six hours—an alchemy of slicing and grafting and stitching. I lay in intensive care for two days under lights hot and bright as the Costa Rica sun. I was aware of heat and my husband reading to me—syllables, not words. Along with the graft, the surgeon sliced into my neck to remove and test lymph nodes. He’d cut an eight-inch slice into my arm, and removed a two-by-three-inch section from my wrist.
In the recovery ward, my tongue was so swollen that I had a trach and a nasal feeding tube. “It’s all the rage among dieters in Los Angeles,” a nurse told me. She gripped my toes when the doctor suctioned mucous from my trach. I wanted to kick her, hard.
I floated for a week in a morphine haze with Elvira, Gene Simmons, and Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Movie. The latter sat cross-legged on a swamp log talking showbiz with Dom DeLuise and paused, trying to catch a fly. “Darn, I missed,” Kermit said. “You know, that’s the first thing to go on a frog? The tongue. The tongue goes and you can’t catch flies.”
I thought of the children’s movie, Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s story of a dead dog stitched and patched and brought back to life. I looked like that dog. How would my kindergartner react when she saw my arm and neck swathed in bandages, the left side of my face heavy with fluids, my left eye half shut?
She bailed on the last half hour of Frankenweenie in the cinema; I took her out to the mall playground. “Mommy,” she told me, “that dog’s way too spooky.”
What if she wanted to stay with her grandmother forever, too afraid to come home with me?
I got up multiple times a day to pace the hospital corridors with my husband like lovers circling an absurdist Spanish promenade. Morphine was the finest drug I’d ever ingested—I was Elizabeth Barrett Browning in plaid pajama pants and my old Beatles t-shirt, scribbling verse after verse in my notebook.
On the seventh day, I wrote the surgeon two sentences: “Please take the feeding tube out. I want to go home.”
He surrendered me with a six-pack of Ensure and an appointment to see him again in two weeks. I scrawled a final note.
“When can I run again?”
He gave me a quizzical look. “Tomorrow, if you want. But slowly. Don’t overdo it.”
I could tell he had no idea of the pain ricocheting through my wrist and tongue and neck. But I appreciated him treating me like a normal person, an athlete, even, and not some freak of nature wheeled out of the hospital grinning and drooling in a morphine daze.
Roll off the Tongue
Ten days after the surgery, my husband and I stood in a local concert hall to hear a reading by three uber-hip authors from Portland—bestsellers, all. My colleagues from the university were there; my journalism students were there. I stood speechless, wrapped up in a scarf, my bandaged arm concealed under a loose blue blouse. I told no one at school what happened, kept the news off social media entirely. A teacher’s tool is her voice, and what writing conference director or bookstore was going to engage a writer who couldn’t talk, even if only temporarily mute?
My fears extended beyond job security. Women my age had begun to pin on pink ribbons of solidarity. Some sported red loops for AIDS and HIV awareness. There was no ribbon for tongue cancer. There was only shame and silence.
The three authors on stage took turns reading, clad in their pajamas. Sentences, whole paragraphs lilted off their tongues. Periodically, the writers stopped to throw lighted beach balls into the crowd. I waited for the bestselling author in the red silk dressing gown to lob a latex tongue my way. It didn’t happen.
Gene Simmons’s Tongue, Redux
I returned to teaching three weeks after surgery, bandaged to the gills and lisping. My journalism students and I avoided one another’s eyes. I sent them a brief email to let them know what happened, but nothing could prepare them for the scars, the swelling, the lisping so badly that most of my lecture consisted of my scribbling on the whiteboard.
That first week, they talked about difficult interview subjects and how to handle them gracefully. The quintessential example, of course, was Terry Gross’s live interview with Gene Simmons on NPR’s Fresh Air. I passed out a transcript and we listened to the discussion on my laptop.
“The notion,” Simmons begins to an obviously flustered Gross, “is that if you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs.”
“He’s disgusting,” a gorgeous young student said from the front of the room. “His whole persona… his makeup, his tight pants, his tongue…”
She stopped, blushed scarlet. Sixteen faces froze. I gripped the edge of the desk and broke into a cold sweat. Pain wracked my body. I fought the temptation to flee the classroom, to give another adjunct my class for the term and spend ten weeks binge-watching Mad Men. I could even fill my prescription for OxyContin.
Instead, I swallowed two Advil and lisped on.
There were checkups every month for a year, and then every two months for two years—trips up to Portland so the surgeon could probe my tongue for non-existent lesions. There was therapeutic massage, lymphatic massage, acupuncture, meditation, and finally anti-depressants to deal with the pain. There was drool when I ran half-marathons; there was a sibilant S that came and went and stayed every time I retained water in my menstrual cycle.
There were singing lessons, in which I learned again to breathe from my diaphragm, to loosen my jaw, let my tongue go soft in my mouth instead of rigid with pain.
Two and a half years after the surgery, the doctor suggested a debulking. “Sometimes, we put too much tissue on,” he explained. “We can take it off, allowing you clearer speech. It’ll take an hour.”
“Let’s do it,” I told him.
A few days before the surgery, I sat at happy hour with a friend. She told me about her breast reduction surgery; she once was a D-cup, boobs big as Elvira’s. I described my impending tongue reduction surgery. We toasted to the absurdity of both.
In the hospital, gowned and scrubbed with antiseptic pads, I arranged my face into deadpan gravitas. My surgeon walked in, and I held out my left arm, the one with the flat sunken scar. “Please,” I said, “when you debulk my tongue, can you transfer the tissue back to my wrist?”
The doctor looked at me a minute through placid brown eyes, struck dumb. He was used to seeing smokers, heavy drinkers, elderly people in third and fourth stages of disease. I was his anomaly, catnip for the medical students who’d be assisting with this reduction surgery.
He chuckled, and I saw that we were friends of a sort, thrown into relationship by necessity. “I’m afraid,” he said, matching my deadpan tone, “that’s not possible. But I think you’ll be pleased with the results.”
A Still Tongue Makes a Wise Head
Here is what I can’t or won’t do because of tongue cancer:
- Throw back my head and laugh in front of people
- Yawn without covering my mouth
- Roll my Rs when I speak Spanish
- Smoke pot for pain relief
- Sing operatic arias in front of people
- Drink hard alcohol
- French kiss my husband
But I can speak melodically and without lisping, as long as I remember to breathe from my diaphragm and hydrate. While I’m always in pain, I can run and hike and kayak. When it hurts to talk, I stay silent and listen. There are worse things.
This week, on a whim, I tried to touch my nose with my tongue. The tip of it reached past my philtrum, a millimeter away from contact with my nasal base.
In time, I will prevail.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.