David Goss-Grubbs knew that the silence was closing in. The cancer that had started in his throat, and that he thought was gone, had come back under his tongue.
In just a few weeks, he would undergo surgery that would remove the cancer but render him unable to speak, to swallow solid food and to communicate in a voice that he had used to sing, perform in community theater and explore a career in voiceover work.
So Goss-Grubbs, 54, closed himself in. He hung blankets in a corner of his sons’ childhood bedroom, set up a microphone and recorded himself speaking some 13,000 phrases.
They are arbitrary sentences about horses leaving barns and people making statements about mail and groceries and places they need to be.
But they are part of a databank of words that Goss-Grubbs — who has a Ph.D. in computational linguistics from the University of Washington — was compiling as part of a team at Facebook focused on digital voicing technology. Text to speech. Artificial voices.
The technology Goss-Grubbs was helping to develop could be the very thing he needed to save the quality of his own life — and his own voice.
“I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute. I have voiceover talent, and thousands of lines of data,'” Goss-Grubbs recalled one pre-surgery afternoon at his Woodinville home. “If I did that, I could have my own digital voice.”
“In case I have to go full-steam Hawking, the digital voice will be my own voice,” he said, referencing physicist Stephen Hawking, who used a synthetic voice to communicate.
“I could amplify my own voice, instead of ending it,” he continued. “It allows me to be doing something other than sitting there feeling like I have no agency.”
Goss-Grubbs was also cooking every night — meals he could prepare and eat with his wife, Cora, and two sons, Simon, 19, and Henry, 15, before his diet was limited to liquids through a tube connected to his stomach.
And he was speaking, and singing, and sharing what he could of himself.
“I am refusing to feel bad about things until I have something to feel bad about,” he said in an interview a week before his surgery.
Outside, he had a chuck roast in the smoker and was preparing his “famous potatoes” — even though no one could say what they were famous for, other than being delicious.
Goss-Grubbs and his wife, who works in behavioral health, have been married for 24 years. They met at a dorm dance at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“He made me laugh,” Cora remembered. And he was different, from a large and boisterous family all about “love and togetherness,” while she grew up in a home quieted and hardened by the death of her 16-year-old brother when she was 13.
“David’s positive attitude makes him believe that anything can work,” Cora said. “I can be a pessimist, so it’s a good balance. I have to channel David sometimes. I keep coming back to mindfulness, and he embodies that.”
Those qualities were a godsend in the days before David’s surgery at UW Medicine, as the family tried to prepare for what, they weren’t quite sure: How much will David be able to communicate? To eat?
“The things he loves to do — singing, community theater — he will find other things,” Cora said. “But he’s extremely introverted, and I am afraid he will be more so and it will pull us apart.
“Because there is not going to be much engagement with me.”
Indeed, COVID-19 meant Cora wasn’t able to be with David at the hospital during or after his surgery. There was no point in doing phone calls, so they would try video calls.
“I might take some clown classes,” David joked. “Not exactly mime. But I could see myself doing clown.”
He worries about not being able to participate in groups, to make the kind of wisecracks he likes to make while watching TV or movies with his family. Just the other night, they were watching a show with a character named Marco.
“Someone called his name: ‘Marco!’ and I said ‘Polo!’,” Goss-Grubbs recalled, then paused. “If they were funny, they would be jokes.”
He is “a little scared” about how his looks and abilities could change. He worries about holidays, and bigger social events.
“I assume I will still cook, even though I’m not eating,” he said. “It will keep me connected to the whole process.”
“But you can get used to anything,” he said. “We will see. Day to day, moment to moment, I’m not scared.”
He also knows he isn’t the only one worrying.
“Cora is scared,” he said. “It’s hard for her to be part of the surgery in the way she normally would.”
The boys, he said, are another issue. His older son has diabetes, so he understands what it is like to manage a medicinalized diet.
“Maybe there is stuff they are not communicating,” he said. “But they understand that these are things that happen to people. As humans, sometimes this happens.”
Said Simon, 15: “I’m not sure if my dad will be able to talk, or eat. But he’s still the same guy. And that’s what matters.”
His father used to read to him and his brother when they were kids; climb into the bottom bunk with them and not just read, but perform, giving each character a different voice. Curious George. Dr. Seuss.
“He’s pretty much read to me every night until recently,” Henry said.
Now those books line a shelf in the bedroom where Goss-Grubbs had set up his recording studio — initially intended to do voiceover work. He took a class a while back, hoping to launch a voiceover career. His instructor told him he had a trustworthy voice, that of an older man. The kind of voice that could sell barbecue sauce, or lawn mowers.
Cora will miss karaoke nights at the Duvall Tavern, where David sang David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” or Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” and they duetted on The B-52s’ “Love Shack.”
Goss-Grubbs’ oropharyngeal cancer is related to the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that HPV causes 36,000 cases of cancer in men and women every year.
The Goss-Grubbs family wants people to know, and urges them to be vaccinated.
“If I had the vaccine when I was young,” he said, “this wouldn’t have happened.”
But it did, and what matters is his attitude, he said, and keeping his focus on the family, love and support that he has.
“I stay in the moment,” he said. “And it’s the Buddhist thing: You get shot by an arrow and it hurts, but worrying about that is like a second arrow.”
He also knows that he can get used to anything that comes after the surgery.
“There are people who can’t talk and who have good lives,” he said. “And I know that my family loves me. I will be fine.”
On the day after his surgery — which took 12 hours and most of his tongue tissue — Cora was able to visit him for just an hour in the ICU.
It was good to see her husband, but hard. He was kept unconscious, in order to help him heal, and his face was swollen. He had a scar across his neck, he was hooked up to oxygen and there were wires all around. Doctors had used tissue from his thigh to replace the tongue tissue they had to remove in an effort to increase the chances of David being able to swallow and talk again.
But then Saturday came, and there was David, participating in the regular Zoom Goss Chat. He was sitting up, smiling, alert and able to type into the chat, despite the wires in his hands.
He said his tongue was totally numb, that this throat hurts, and that the most annoying thing was that he was constantly drooling.
Still, he was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever seen. His mother teared up. So did David.
The next day, he was walking “laps” around the ICU, Cora said — a place he would be leaving that night.
“His determination is quite amazing,” Cora said.
So is his sense of humor.
In a Facebook post he wrote just days after his surgery, Goss-Grubbs offered “some tips you didn’t ask for when you are in conversation with somebody who can’t speak and has to write.”
“They can hear you just fine, you don’t have to shout,” he began. Don’t read along when someone is writing, especially out loud, “and especially don’t try to predict what they’re going to say before they’re done saying it.”
“Saying it.” Even in the silence, Goss-Grubbs’ voice is loud and clear.
Seattle Times videographer Corinne Chin contributed to this report.