When I first woke up in the hospital, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Nick saving my life. I didn’t know whether I was glad to be alive or wished I was dead. A day later, as I lay in my ICU bed, listening to Dr. Stone talk about treatment options for my liver failure, I still didn’t know whether I wanted to live with what I’d done or let myself die and leave it all behind.
It was Kevin’s question that made up my mind.
“What about a living donor?” he asked the doctor. “Isn’t that something you can do now, take a part of someone’s liver and put it in another person? It grows back, right?”
Dr. Stone nodded somewhat hesitantly. “That is true, but-”
“Well, then, why don’t you just do that? Howie’s got three siblings-” Seeing where Kevin was going with this, I started to shake my head, but he kept talking. “-and if none of them are able to donate, maybe one of us would work as a donor.” He gestured to himself, Brian, and AJ.
“Kev, no,” I said, but he ignored me.
“We may not be related by blood, but we’re like brothers. I know any of us would be willing to donate a piece of liver to save Howie’s life. Right, fellas?” He looked at the other two, as if daring them to disagree.
“Guys,” I started again, still shaking my head, but Brian was already nodding.
“It’d be a small price to pay, but it’d be worth it,” he said, giving me a grim smile.
Even AJ, who had always been terrified by needles and bodily fluids, surprised me by agreeing. “I don’t know if you really want my liver, bro, after everything I’ve put it through-” He laughed awkwardly, trying to break the tension. “-but if it’ll help, you can have it. Well, half of it, anyway. I guess I sorta still need the other half.” He offered a weak grin, but there were tears in his eyes.
I was touched by the gesture, by their overwhelming generosity, but I knew I could never let any of them do what they were offering. “Guys, no. Stop,” I said firmly, holding up my hand. “Just stop right there.” Finally, I had their attention. I swallowed hard, trying to work out what I wanted to say. My head was pounding, and my thoughts felt scattered. I struggled to organize them into something that made sense. “Listen, I… I appreciate what you’re offering to do, but…” I shook my head. “I just can’t let you do that.”
Kevin frowned. “What do you mean? Of course you can. Like Brian said, it’s a small price to pay to save your life.”
Dr. Stone cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I want to clarify something. We usually only do living-donor transplants in cases of chronic liver failure, when we have more time to find a suitable donor. It’s a lengthy process that requires a lot of testing and counseling to minimize the risk to the donor. This is not something I’d recommend rushing into. You may not realize it, but removing a portion of the liver requires major surgery. It’s relatively safe for the donor, but there’s still a risk whenever we put someone under general anesthesia. It’s not a decision the transplant team takes lightly.”
“See?” I said, looking up at the guys. “There you go. I’m not gonna let any of you or anyone in my family take that kind of risk for me. It’s not worth it. With the luck I’ve had lately, you’d end up dying on the operating table. I would never be able to live with myself if I let something like that happen to one of you.”
The room fell silent, except for the soft hiss of oxygen through the canula in my nose. It seemed no one could argue with that logic. Looking at me, Dr. Stone said, “I’m sure you could use some time to talk things over with your friends and think about whether a traditional cadaver transplant is something you want to be considered for or not. I have other patients I need to get to, but you can have your nurse page me when you’ve made a decision. Do you have any questions before I go?”
I shook my head.
As soon as Dr. Stone had left, AJ exploded. “That dude was a dick! What was he doing, trying to talk you out of taking one of his ‘precious organs’? Fuck him! Of course you want to have the transplant!”
I sighed. “He’s just doing his job, AJ. And he’s got a point. Why waste a perfectly good liver on a guy who already destroyed the one God gave him? It’s not like I just got sick. I did this to myself. I deserve this.”
“No you don’t, D. No one deserves this.”
I smiled sadly at AJ, my oldest friend. “Thanks, J. It’s nice to know you’d let me have half your liver, even though I know how much you hate all this hospital stuff.”
AJ shrugged and looked away. “Aw, it’s nothin’,” he muttered. “Anyone else would do the same.”
Kevin and Brian nodded in agreement, but I snorted with skepticism. “You think Nick would?”
“Hell yeah, he would,” AJ claimed, a little too quickly. “If he knew what was going on, he’d wanna help.”
But I could tell by look Brian gave him that he didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it, either. “He hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you.” Kevin sighed. “He’s just upset. You put him through hell the other night, you know.”
My stomach churned with guilt. “You think I don’t know that? He’s been through hell the last two months because of me! I know what I did was selfish. I took advantage of him that night on the cruise, and I took advantage of him on New Year’s Eve. I could have called anyone, but I decided to dump this all on him, and that wasn’t right.”
“At least you called someone,” Brian said quietly. “If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be with us right now. Nick knows that.”
I shook my head. “I only called him because he was the one person I knew wouldn’t answer. I didn’t think he’d listen to my message until it was too late. I didn’t want him to find me like that; I just wanted him to know I was sorry and to tell my family the same thing. I shouldn’t have called him, though. I should’ve just written a note instead. Then it would all be over by now.”
The guys gaped at me, like they couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?” AJ was the first to ask. “Why would you say something like that? You have so much to live for, D!”
“Think about your kids,” added Kevin. “Your family… your career…”
I was still shaking my head, as tears started in the corners of my eyes. “Don’t you guys get it? I don’t want to live like this anymore.” I made a wide, sweeping gesture that was meant to encompass not only the equipment in my room, but everything in my life. “Forget the liver failure; it’s the guilt that’s killing me. Everything I had is gone! Leigh doesn’t love me, she won’t let me see my kids, and my career is pretty much over. Even if I recovered from this, you think Nick would ever want to perform with me again? Not after everything I’ve put him through. It would be better for the group if I was gone. Then you guys could go on without me and pretend this never happened.”
AJ snorted and shook his head, taking a swipe at his streaming eyes. “Like we could just forget about you.”
“Like we would go on as a group without you,” Brian added, as if I was a fool to suggest it.
I shrugged. “Why not? We did when Kevin left.”
“That was different. Kevin wasn’t dead. We always knew Kev would come back when he wanted to. Dying, man… you can’t come back from that.”
If Nick were there, he would have cracked a joke about zombies after that comment. But Nick wasn’t there. It was just the three of them, crowded around my bed in the little ICU cubicle.
“What about our fans?” Kevin asked. “Just think of how they’re gonna react when they find out you’re in the hospital.” He held up the piece of paper on which he had drafted the statement to send to our publicist. “And you’re really gonna make us write another one of these in a week, when you’re dead? No way, man. No fucking way. You’ve gotta fight this! We need you. Your fans need you.”
“Forget the fans,” said Brian, shaking his head. “What about your family? They need you! If they only knew the things you were saying right now…”
“They’re better off without me. Look how much I’ve already fucked up their lives.”
“Yeah, and you don’t think it’ll be worse if you’re dead? Who’s going to take care of them then? Who’s going to watch out for James and Holden?”
I flinched as he said my sons’ names, each one like a stab to my heart. “Leigh’ll handle it,” I said, looking away, so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. “Everything I have will go to her and the boys. She can use my money to make sure they have what they need.”
“What about your brother and sisters? And your poor mother?”
I closed my eyes, allowing a few tears to slip out, and took a deep breath, sucking oxygen through my nose. “They’ve been through this before… with Dad… and Caroline. They’ll get through it again.”
“But why would you put them through that again on purpose?” Brian demanded. “Your dad didn’t wanna die. Your sister didn’t wanna die. It was out of their control. But you… you have a choice here, Howie!”
“That’s right,” I muttered, without opening my eyes. My head was still pounding, and my eyelids suddenly felt so heavy. “It’s my choice.” With a burst of strength, I forced my eyes open, forced myself to look up at their faces, though the tears made my vision blur. “I don’t wanna have the damn liver transplant.”
AJ started shaking his head. “Howie, come on…”
I took another deep breath and let it out slowly while I collected my thoughts again. “I’m sorry, AJ, but it’s how I feel. I don’t see the point of putting myself through a painful operation and months of recovery just so I can go back to living with guilt and HIV. I told you… I don’t wanna live like that anymore. I knew what I was doing the other night. I wanted to die. Nothing’s changed, except now, I’ll just die a little slower…”
The three of them were staring down at me with stricken looks on their faces. AJ’s mouth was hanging open with dismay, while Kevin’s eyebrows were furrowed in a deep frown. Brian was actually glaring at me, his blue eyes bright with tears. But in that moment, nothing they could have said would have changed my mind.
I felt oddly at peace with my decision. In a way, I felt like it was meant to be. My suicide attempt may not have worked out the way I’d planned – not that I’d planned it very well at all – but since it had destroyed my liver, it was still going to kill me in the long run. It was only fitting that it would take an extra seven days to do so. Maybe it was my punishment for trying to take my own life in the first place. Maybe it was karma that I should suffer a long, drawn-out death after shortening the lives of my son, wife, and best friend. Or maybe it was just more bad luck. Either way, I had accepted it.
“I’m sorry, guys,” I said, yawning, “but I’m really tired right now. Can you just go for a while, so I can get some sleep? You can come back later, if you want.”
I saw the worried looks they gave each other, but finally, it was Kevin who said, “Sure, Howie. You get some rest. We’ll be back later, okay? Hang in there, man.” He gripped my shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze, and then stepped back from my bed.
As they turned and walked away, I could hear them whispering about me – “What the fuck is wrong with him?” – but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about much of anything right then. My head hurt, and I just wanted to sleep.
I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke, my brother John was by my bedside again.
“Hey,” he said softly, giving me a sad smile. “How ya feelin’, bud?”
I could tell by his tone of voice and the look on his face that someone had filled him in. “About like you’d expect from someone who looks like this,” I said, holding up my hands. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror lately, but my hair hadn’t been washed since 2013, and there was still a tube taped to the side of my face that was sticking out of my nose. I knew I couldn’t look too good. I didn’t feel good either. My stomach hurt, and not even the nap had helped my headache.
“I talked to Leigh on the phone,” Johnny told me. “She sends her love.”
I looked at him skeptically. “Did she really say that?”
He nodded. “Yeah, and she also said to tell you to hang in there.”
She must have known, too. “Is she coming out here?” I asked.
He hesitated, then shrugged and shook his head. “She didn’t say that.”
I sighed, knowing that meant “no.” “I wish I could see her… and the boys…”
“I know, man. But hey,” he said, his voice brightening, “Mom’s on her way with Angie and Polly. They’ll be here by tonight.”
Obviously, the rest of my family had been filled in as well, or they wouldn’t have changed their minds about coming. I wasn’t looking forward to facing them, knowing they would try to guilt trip me into going ahead with the transplant. I wondered what Leigh would say… what she’d really said…
“Can I call her?”
“Who? Mom?” John’s face looked confused. “She’s on a plane, Howie; she can’t answer her phone.”
“No…” I frowned, feeling like I wasn’t making much sense. My thoughts were muddled, my mind still groggy. “Leigh.”
“Oh. Yeah, man, sure. Here, use my phone; I think yours is still at your house.” He wiped down the screen of his phone with the hem of his t-shirt and handed it to me. “You want me to step out and give you some privacy?”
I nodded. “Yeah, thanks, that’d be nice.”
I waited until he had walked out, then looked down at his phone. It took me several tries to unlock the screen with a swipe of my finger; my hand was shaking, and my fingers felt thick and clumsy. I fumbled through his contacts list, almost accidentally dialing two different people before I finally found my way to my wife’s number. I punched the button to dial and put the phone up to my ear, listening to it ring. I was used to waiting until it went to voicemail, but maybe she would answer if she thought it was just John.
Sure enough, after two rings, I heard a pause and then a soft “Hello?”
My heart skipped a beat at the sound of her voice. “Leigh?” I breathed.
“Howie? Is that you?”
“Yeah… it’s me.”
There was another pause, and for moment, I wondered if she was going to hang up on me. But then she said, “Hi… how are you?” It wasn’t exactly the response I was hoping for, but at least she hadn’t hung up.
“I dunno… alive? For now, anyway.”
She sighed. “Are you trying to punish me, Howie? For taking the kids away? Is that what this is?”
“What? No. I… I just…” I trailed off, struggling to explain myself. What could I say that would justify my actions and the decision I had made?
“’Cause that’s what it feels like: a ploy to get me to bring the kids out there, or a punishment if I don’t. Well, I’m sorry, Howie.” I could hear her voice starting to choke up. “I’m sorry you’re sick, but I’m not going to fly two little boys across the country just to watch their father die.”
I closed my eyes, as my hopes of seeing James and Holden one last time were crushed. But I knew she was right. I didn’t want their last memories of me to take place in a hospital room.
“You don’t have to,” I said, and then, on sudden inspiration, I opened my eyes. “I’ll come to you!”
In that moment, it made so much sense to me. Why would I want to spend my last seven days lying in a hospital bed, when I could be with my boys? I sat up, ignoring the pain in my stomach, and swung my legs slowly over the side of the bed. I sat there for a second, swaying with dizziness.
“Huh?” Leigh’s voice sounded confused. “What are you talking about, Howie? Aren’t you still in the hospital?”
“Yeah, but I don’t wanna be here anymore. I don’t… I don’t wanna die here.” Slowly, I tried to stand, but the tubes and wires tugged, trying to hold me back. “Hang on,” I told Leigh, setting the phone down beside me on the bed. I slid the oxygen cannula out of my nose and slipped it over my head, tossing it aside. Then I reached down the front of my hospital gown and peeled off the little sticky pads that were attached to my chest. They pulled at my chest hair, making me wince as I yanked them off, one by one.
“Howie?” I heard Leigh say, her voice sounding far away. I’d almost forgotten she was still on the phone.
“Hang on a sec, hon,” I called to her. “I’m on my way!”
“Howie, wait. What are you doing??”
I looked down at the IV in my arm. That was going to really hurt, but I couldn’t very well wheel an IV pole with me onto the plane. I had just ripped the line right out of my vein when a woman in scrubs came running into the room, wheeling a shiny red cart.
“Mr. Dorough!” she gasped, skidding to a stop beside my bed. I thought she had been my nurse, but I couldn’t remember her name. She looked surprised to see me sitting up on the edge of my bed. My eyes moved from her face to the red cart behind her. It was really bright and shiny red, like one of James’s toy fire engines, and it had a lot of drawers. I wondered vaguely what was inside all those drawers. “What are you doing?” the woman asked. “You need to get back into bed, Mr. Dorough.”
“Where’s the code?” asked a guy I didn’t recognize, as he came into cubicle and looked around.
“There is no code. The patient pulled off his leads,” the nurse replied, frowning at me. “What’s wrong, Mr. Dorough? Did you need to use the bathroom?”
“No,” I said, “I’ve gotta get to the airport.” I started to stand up again, but my balance was still off, and I stumbled. Both of them rushed forward and grabbed me by the arms to steady me before I fell.
“Hey, he ripped out his IV, too,” the male nurse or doctor or whoever was holding my left arm pointed out. “He’s bleeding.”
“Don’t touch the site without gloves,” the woman replied quickly. “He’s HIV-positive.” To me, she said, “Mr. Dorough, you’re in no condition to leave the hospital right now. You need to lie down.” She put her hand on my chest and tried to push me back into bed, but I planted my feet firmly on the floor.
“No,” I insisted, “I need to see my sons! Let me go!”
“Mr. Dorough, calm down.”
“Hey, what’s going on in here?”
Hearing a familiar voice, I looked up and was relieved to see my brother walking back in. “Johnny! Johnny, thank god you’re here. I need to go, but they won’t let me leave!”
“Go?” John’s face looked blank. “Go where?”
“I’m not sure what’s got him so agitated, but he’s saying he wants to go to the airport so he can see his sons,” the female nurse explained, talking about me like I wasn’t even there.
“He’s altered,” I heard the man say, as if I couldn’t hear him. “Let’s give him four of Versed.”
“What? Wait,” I said, starting to panic as I felt the man’s hand close around my upper arm. The woman had turned away and was rummaging through her shiny red cart. I saw the flash of a syringe and knew what she wanted to do to me. “Wait, no! I need to go!”
“Mr. Dorough, you need to calm down,” warned the man, squeezing my shoulder.
“Howie,” I heard John say in the background, “Howie, chill out, bro. Let them help you.”
“No! I need to see… Leigh!” I tried to squirm away, but the man’s grip on me was too strong, and the woman’s reflexes too fast. Before I knew what was happening, he had pushed me back down onto the bed while she jabbed a needle into my thigh. As she pushed down the plunger, I felt a rush of something warm that made me woozy.
Light-headed, I was unable to resist lying down on the bed, as my body betrayed me. I no longer had control over my own limbs. I felt like I was floating, hopelessly adrift in an endless sea of black.
“Just relax, Mr. Dorough,” I heard the female nurse say. Her voice sounded like it was coming from far away, but it was soft and soothing.
My head still felt light, but my eyelids were so heavy. Against my will, they started to close, until the sea of black swallowed me up, and my surroundings faded away.