You know that game Jenga? The one where you build a tower out of wooden blocks and try not to be the one who makes it fall? The guys and I used to play it on the tour bus, back in the days when we still shared the same bus. It was one of many ways we’d pass the time while we traveled from one city to the next. The moving bus added an extra challenge that made it more fun – and also more frustrating. We’d have this really tall, sturdy tower built on the table, and we’d take turns sliding a block out of the bottom and adding it to the top, and everyone’s hand would be steady, and the tower wouldn’t even wobble, and then… BAM! Out of nowhere, the bus would hit a bump in the road, and the whole tower would come crashing down. Sometimes we’d just shake our heads and laugh, and other times we would scream and curse, but we’d always end up picking up the pieces and playing again.
If you think about, life’s a lot like a game of Jenga. It can be going along just fine, and then BAM, you hit a bump in the road, and everything falls apart.
That’s what happened to me, anyway.
My life was good. Great, even. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but whose is? I’d made some mistakes, but who hasn’t? Still, I had a wife who loved me, two beautiful boys who’d made my life complete, and a successful singing career that was still going strong after twenty years. I had a lot to be thankful for and little to regret.
Then it all came tumbling down.
My downfall didn’t happen in London, but that’s where we were when the tower started to wobble. I guess it was fitting. After all, that was where I’d made the fateful mistake that would end up costing me everything. I’d tried to forget about that night, but the past has a way of coming back to bite you in the butt.
Flash forward five months. It was November, and the Backstreet Boys were back in Europe to promote our latest single and upcoming European tour. We had been touring for almost six months straight, with little more than two weeks off in between legs, and tensions were running high. Although we were grateful to be celebrating twenty years together, we were also tired. Really tired. Our twentieth anniversary was a milestone, but it was also a reminder that we’d been at this a long time. We were all in our thirties and forties now, far from the kids we’d been when the group got together, and let me tell you: when you get to be forty, your body just doesn’t recover as quickly as it did at twenty. All that touring had taken its toll on us. I usually love traveling, but even I was feeling pretty ragged and run-down at that point.
Nick said he felt the same way. He had been complaining about having the flu, but I thought that was just a convenient excuse he’d made up to avoid me. I had hoped things wouldn’t be weird between us, but the two weeks we’d spent apart after the cruise just wasn’t enough time to heal the wounds I’d inflicted upon him on that boat. I felt bad about it, but I’d already apologized. What else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t take it back. I wish I could, especially now.
All of this is my fault.
So, anyway, things were awkward, but Nick’s “I’m sick” story kept the other guys from asking too many questions. They bought it when he said he would rather stay in his hotel room and sleep than go out with us, but I knew the truth: he was afraid to be around me after we’d both been drinking. After what happened on the cruise, I can’t say I blamed him. But even though he had his reasons, it hurt. It still hurts, though he has even more reason to reject me now.
But back to our time in London. We were making an appearance on The X-Factor that night, and it was as we were backstage, getting ready, that my phone rang. I looked down and saw that it was Leigh, my wife, calling, so of course I answered it. “Hi, honey.”
“Howie?” Her voice sounded shaky, and I could tell she’d been crying. Right away, my heart leaped into my throat.
“Leigh? What’s wrong?”
She sniffled, then laughed a little. “Was it that obvious? I’m sorry, sweetie. I didn’t want to worry you, and I hope I’m not interrupting anything important, but I just had to call.”
“No, it’s okay. We’re at The X-Factor, getting ready for our performance, but I’ve got some time to talk.” I walked away from the other guys, who were goofing around in the green room, and found a quiet corner where I could hear her better. “What’s going on?” I asked, not knowing that her next words would turn my world upside down.
“I’m at the hospital with Holden. He’s sick, really sick. They think he’s got pneumonia.”
My heart skipped a beat as I thought of my baby boy being in the hospital. “Oh, no…” I said, and that got the attention of all of the guys, who looked over at me in concern.
“What’s wrong?” Kevin mouthed, but I shook my head and turned around, cupping the phone closer to my ear.
“When did this happen?” I asked, my mind racing. I remembered her saying something the other day about Holden having a cold, which wasn’t uncommon with a three-year-old in the house – like most toddlers, James was a magnet for germs – but pneumonia? That was a whole different thing.
“He’s had a cough for the last few days, but when he woke up from his nap this afternoon, he was wheezing. I got scared and took him to the emergency room, and they ran some tests and are going to admit him.”
“Oh, god…” I felt sick to my stomach, imagining Holden in a hospital bed and poor Leigh pacing back and forth in the hallway as she spoke to me. “Honey, I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this on your own. I wish I was there with you.” Right then, I just wanted to hold her in my arms, not try to comfort her over the phone. “How are you holding up?”
“Okay.” She sniffled again. “Your mom offered to take James for the night, so that helps. I wish you were here, too, though.”
“Do you want me come home? I could probably catch a red-eye out of here tonight.” I glanced over my shoulder and saw Kevin, Brian, AJ, and Nick all staring at me, mouths open, brows creased, eyes wide with worry. I offered an apologetic shrug.
“Oh, Howie, I don’t want you to have to do that,” said Leigh. “You should stay and finish your promo stuff. Your fans will be devastated if you don’t show up to the rest of your appearances.”
It was just like my wife to worry about the fans’ feelings when she was the one dealing with a sick child. But then, she had been a fan herself, back when I first met her, when she was working on our website. She understood how our fans thought, which was one of the many things I loved about her. I smiled and shook my head. “Honey, if I have to miss a few gigs for something like this, they’ll understand.”
“Still…” I could hear the hesitation in her voice. “I don’t want you to just hop on a plane and hurry back here for nothing. I don’t know how serious this is yet, but I do know that Holden’s in good hands. The doctors and nurses are taking good care of him, and I’m sure he’s going to be fine in a few days.”
She was probably right, but I knew that even if I did hop on a plane that night, it wouldn’t be for nothing. My son was more important to me than any performance or interview. “Listen, lemme talk to the guys tonight and fill them in on what’s going on, and I’ll call you in the morning to see how Holden’s doing. If he’s not any better, I’ll be on the next flight home.”
Leigh sniffled. “Okay… thanks, sweetheart. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Give Holden a hug and a kiss for me if you can and tell him Daddy loves him.”
“I will,” she promised. “Goodnight.”
“Call me if anything changes. Otherwise, I’ll talk to you in the morning. Goodnight, honey.” I hung up and turned to face the guys.
“Something wrong with Holden?” asked Kevin, his eyebrows furrowed so close together, you couldn’t see the gap between them.
I sighed. “Yeah. Leigh had to take him to the hospital. They think he has pneumonia.”
He, Brian, and AJ all gasped. As fathers, they all knew what it was like to worry about a sick kid – especially Brian, who had been through this before when Baylee was hospitalized with Kawasaki disease. I hoped what Holden had wasn’t that serious, but pneumonia certainly wasn’t something to take lightly, especially in a nine-month-old. Even Nick seemed to recognize this; he looked just as serious as the rest of them. “Sorry, man,” he said. “Are you going home?”
Since he’d spent the last two weeks avoiding me, Nick’s sympathy meant a lot. “I don’t know yet,” I replied. “Like I told Leigh, I’m gonna wait till morning and see. But if he’s not doing any better, then… yeah. I might have to.”
Years ago, they – or our managers, anyway – might have tried to stop me. Canceling an appearance was something we did only in the most dire of circumstances. Even when my sister died, I didn’t miss a show. But I also didn’t make it home in time to see her before she passed, and I wasn’t about to make that same mistake again. Not that I was worried my son was going to die. Still, if it was serious, I would rather be safe than sorry, and I was pretty sure that, this time, the guys would feel the same way.
“If you have to go, D, then go,” said AJ, and the other three nodded emphatically.
“Nothing’s more important than family,” Brian agreed.
“Yeah, and you know the fans will understand,” added Kevin.
“I know. Thanks, guys,” I said, managing a smile. I appreciated their support more than I could ever put into words.
When it came time to take the stage on The X-Factor, my mind was miles away, already back in Florida with my wife and son. I let the other guys do all the talking, while I went through the motions, a beat behind the rest of them. Our performance that night was not my best. The second single off our new album was “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of),” a song I loved, a song that made me think of my children. “You find the truth in a child’s eyes, when the only limit is the sky. Living proof, I see myself in you…” My voice broke and shook as I thought about my baby boy being in the hospital. I think it was then that I decided to go home, though I kept my promise not to call Leigh until morning.
After the show, some of the other guys wanted to go out, but I didn’t feel like it, so I headed back to the hotel with Brian. Nick, I noticed, felt up to a night on the town once he found out I wasn’t going, but I was too worried about Holden to be offended. I wanted to wait up for awhile, in case Leigh called back with an update, so Brian and I hung out in his hotel room for a few hours. None of the wives were on tour with us, so it was just us guys – and, frankly, I like Brian better that way. Not that I don’t like Leighanne, but Brian’s just different with her than he is when she’s not around. He was a good distraction that night, helping me take my mind off things until I felt like I could sleep.
Still, sleep didn’t come easy to me that night. I tossed and turned for a long time before I finally fell asleep, then woke several hours later, feeling like I hadn’t slept at all. I couldn’t go back to sleep, and I couldn’t wait, so I called Leigh at three a.m. – ten p.m. in Florida – hoping to catch her before she went to bed.
“Hello?” she answered the phone groggily, and I wished I’d waited.
“Sorry, honey, did I wake you?”
“I was half-asleep, but it’s fine,” she replied quickly. “It’s morning there, right? Did you just wake up?”
“Yeah. How’s Holden?” I asked, not in the mood for small talk.
She sighed. “He’s hanging in there. I’m still here at the hospital with him; they brought me a cot so I could sleep in his room. He’s on IV antibiotics and oxygen to help him breathe. They’re going to run some more tests in the morning. The doctor said we might be better off moving him to Orlando, where they have more advanced equipment.”
The thought of my little man in a strange place with needles and tubes sticking out of him made me feel sick to my stomach. “I want to be there,” I blurted. It may have seemed like a spontaneous decision, but I think I had already made up my mind in my sleep. There was no way I could stay overseas and perform when my son was in the hospital, thousands of miles away, sick with what sounded like a serious infection. “I’m going to head to the airport right now, and I’ll be on the first flight out.”
I expected Leigh to argue with me, to assure me that I was overreacting, that she and Holden would both be fine and I didn’t need to come. It was a sign of how worried she was that she didn’t try to stop me. “Okay,” was all she said.
“I’ll call you when I land. Try to get some sleep. I love you.”
Leigh blew me a kiss over the phone. “I love you, too.”
We hung up, unaware that our world, the beautiful life we’d built together, was about to implode.