Time passed by in a blur. In the ICU, I drifted in and out of consciousness, never really sure if I was actually awake or just dreaming.
When I opened my eyes and saw him sitting beside my bed, I thought at first that I had to be hallucinating. The fluorescent light framed his head from behind, washing out his face, but giving his blonde hair a sort of glow. Through my blurry vision, it almost looked like he had a halo.
Like an angel.
Even in my stupor, I knew better than to say those words out loud. He may have saved my life – or, at the very least, delayed my death – but he would kill me if he knew what I was thinking. So all I said was his name.
He cleared his throat and licked his lips, like he always did when he was nervous. That’s how I knew he was real. “Yeah… it’s me.”
His voice sounded rough, like he hadn’t slept in days. There were dark shadows under his eyes, which stood out against the paleness of his face. For the second time since his diagnosis, I thought he looked… well, sick. I’m sure I looked a lot worse, but since I had no mirror, I could only focus on his sallow face, and it scared me. More than that, it reminded me, once again, that it was my fault. I had made him this way.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
He shook his head, and though his jaw was clenched, I saw his chin quiver. “You don’t have to say it again. I know. I’m sorry, too.”
He spent the next few minutes apologizing for his behavior at Q’s funeral, begging me to agree to the transplant, and berating me when I said I didn’t want it.
“Damn it, Howie, don’t do this! Don’t give up! You can’t die like this; we need you!” He leaned closer, looking me right in the eye. “I need you. I love you,” he said, and my heart skipped a beat. “Maybe not in the way you want me to,” he was quick to add, “but as a friend… and a brother.”
I let out the breath I’d been holding in a soft sigh, but I never took my eyes off his face. There were tears in his blue eyes, making them extra bright.
“I already lost a sister to an overdose,” he said, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “Don’t make me lose my brother, too.”
I couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. Just hearing the pain in his voice was bad enough. We’ve all been through hard times, we’ve all lost people we loved, but Nick had had more than his fair share of drama to deal with. Between his messed-up family and the steady stream of women and so-called “friends” that had drifted in and out of his life, always using and abusing him, Nick had been hurt too many times before. Until Lauren came along, we – the Backstreet Boys – had been the only source of stability in his otherwise turbulent life. It must have felt like I had swept a rug right out from under his feet, slamming him to the floor. I closed my eyes, hating myself for hurting him again.
But it didn’t have to be this way, I realized. If I just agreed to what he was asking me, maybe things would get better… someday… for us both. I didn’t want to live with the pain anymore… but I also didn’t want to put him through any more pain. So I sucked in a breath and said, “Okay.”
“Okay… I’ll sign the consent.”
I felt his breath on my face as he leaned closer. “Look at me,” he said in a low voice, “and say it again.”
It was hard work, opening my eyes. My eyelids felt like lead weights; I struggled to lift them. It would have been so easy to just let myself slip away, without feeling a thing, but when I saw the hopeful look on his face, I knew I couldn’t let him down again. My head was heavy, but I forced myself to nod. “I’ll do the transplant.”
Then I drifted off again.
When I woke up the next time, Nick was gone. Instead, my sister Pollyanna was sitting beside my bed. For a few seconds, I struggled just to focus on her face. Finally, I was able to form the words I wanted to ask.
I was shocked by the sound of my own voice – it was so weak and scratchy, the words slurred like I was trying to speak with a mouth full of peanut butter. What was wrong with me? Silly question, Howie, I thought, as I remembered: I was dying. My body was shutting down.
“He went home,” Polly replied apologetically. “He waited around with us awhile, but when you didn’t wake up…”
I frowned, feeling confused. “What time is it? How long was I asleep?”
My sister gave me a look of sympathy. “Dr. Stone said you wouldn’t remember. You had a seizure, Howie, from the swelling in your brain.”
“What?” It was hard to believe her, but I knew she wouldn’t lie. “When?”
“A few hours ago, while Nick was visiting. You gave him quite a scare. You scared us all, actually.” Her eyes filled with tears as she reached out and took my hand. “We weren’t sure when or if you were going to wake up.”
I sighed. “I’m starting to wish I hadn’t…”
“Howie!” Polly’s eyes flashed. “Why would you say something like that?”
I felt humiliated. “As if Nick doesn’t already hate me enough, I had to go and hurt him again.”
“What are you talking about? Nick doesn’t hate you. You should have seen him afterwards; he was a wreck. But it wasn’t your fault, Howie; it’s not like you could help it. He knows that.”
I remembered that she didn’t know what Nick knew. She didn’t know what I had done to him, why he had every reason to hate me. But then, did he really hate me? The fuzzy memories of the conversation we’d had before I lost consciousness started to come into the foreground of my mind, more clearly than before. I need you, I recalled him telling me, with tears in his eyes. I love you.
I love you too, Nick, I thought, filled with regret over putting him through the pain of watching me slowly die. I realized that when it finally happened, I would be getting off easy, while he and the rest of my friends and family would have to suffer. That wasn’t fair to them.
“I told him I would get the transplant,” I said, as the rest of the memory came back to me.
Pollyanna nodded. “He told your doctor. Now that you’re awake, he’ll probably want you to sign something. Consent forms and such. Do you want me to see if I can track him down? I’m not sure if he’s still here this late, but-”
“Who… Nick?” My thoughts felt muddled again.
She frowned. “No… Dr. Stone. But I can call Nick, if you’d like. Maybe he could come back in the morning?”
I shook my head. “No… don’t. He’s been through enough.”
“Okay. I’ll step out for a second and see if someone can page Dr. Stone. Sound good?”
Even as I nodded, my eyelids were starting to grow heavy again. By the time my sister came back, I had drifted back to sleep.
My memories after that are pretty scattered, mostly the blurry faces and disembodied voices of my many visitors.
I know Dr. Stone came to see me at some point, and Dr. Zediar the shrink, and several other doctors whose names I did not know. They asked me questions, and I tried my best to answer, but it was becoming more difficult to stay awake and even harder to form coherent thoughts, let alone actual words.
I remember my mom sitting by my bed, holding my hand in her lap, rubbing the back of it between her fingers and thumb. I could barely speak by then, so I just lay there and looked at our hands. It struck me how much they had changed since I was a little boy whose hands fit neatly into hers. Mine were much bigger now, while hers seemed shrunken, withered with wrinkles. My skin looked saffron under the harsh fluorescent lights; hers was spotted and paper thin. I could feel every bone protruding from underneath it, as if all the fat were gone. She had never looked so frail, not even after my father died, though the sadness in her eyes was the same. I knew that was my fault. For the first time, I found myself hoping for a new liver to come through, if only to save her from having to bury another one of her children. No parent should outlive her child.
I thought of Holden and James, wishing I could hold them one last time. I looked for Leigh as the faces leaning over my bed changed, one into the next: Johnny… Polly… Angie… AJ… Kevin… Brian… But none belonged to my beautiful wife.
Then there came a point when I was beyond speaking, beyond even opening my eyes, still able to hear their whispered words of encouragement, but unable to respond. “Hang in there, Howie,” was the last thing I heard, as someone squeezed my hand, and I wondered, Hang in where?
I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. I was just “there.”