When we got to Cedars-Sinai, everyone else was already there: Kevin, Brian, AJ, Howie’s mom, his brother and sisters… basically everyone except Leigh. They were sitting around the waiting room with solemn looks on their faces. I could tell some of them had been crying.
When he saw us, Kevin stood up and walked across the room to hug first Lauren and then me. “I’m glad you guys came,” he said quietly. “It’s not good, Nick.”
My breath caught in my throat. “He’s not-?” I started to ask, but I couldn’t say the word.
Kevin shook his head. “Not yet. Do you wanna go see him now?”
I hesitated. I had been thinking about what I would do and say when I saw Howie the whole way there, but I wasn’t ready. Saying I was sorry had been hard enough. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Kevin put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It’s gonna be tough, I know,” he said, as if he could read my mind. “But you’ve gotta go in there. If you don’t, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life. Trust me, bro. I’ve been there.”
He had to have been thinking about his dad. I was thinking about Leslie. She had died so suddenly and unexpectedly, I hadn’t been given the chance to make amends or to say goodbye, but I still regret not going to her funeral. As I wrote in my memoir,
It is a horrible feeling to lose a loved one in any situation, and even worse to lose an important person in your life with hard feelings still lingering… Don’t let disagreements or feuds keep you apart from those you love. Forgive them and ask their forgiveness because you never know when they might be gone forever.
I knew it was time to take my own advice. I couldn’t make the same mistake with my brother as I had with my sister. So I nodded, and Kevin patted my shoulder again in approval.
“I’ll wait here,” Lauren said, “so you can have some time alone with him.” She gave me an encouraging smile, then slipped away and went to sit with everyone else. A part of me wished she would come with me because she made me stronger, but I knew it wouldn’t be the same if she was there. She and Howie had only known each other a few years. He’d been one of my best friends for over half my life. I had to do this by myself.
Kevin escorted me to Howie’s corner of the ICU. “I’ll wait for you in the hallway,” he offered, at the foot of Howie’s bed.
“Don’t bother. I can find my way back,” I said.
“Okay. Take your time.” Kevin turned and walked away, leaving me alone with Howie.
I took a few tentative steps towards his bed, overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu as I looked down at his body. He had looked pretty bad before, but nothing like he did now. There were even more tubes connected to him, coming out of just about every orifice I could see and, thankfully, some that I couldn’t see under the covers. A horrific-looking contraption protruded from the top of his head, where it had been implanted to monitor the pressure that was building up inside his skull from the swelling in his brain. Half of his face was hidden behind a breathing tube that was sticking out of his mouth and taped to his cheek. I could hear the oxygen hissing through the hose that connected it to the ventilator by his bed, forcing his lungs to breathe. There was still a thinner tube running up his nostril, delivering nutrients straight to his stomach, while clear fluid ran through an IV line in the side of his neck. Another IV in his arm carried blood into a big, noisy thing on the other side of his bed that I decided must be a dialysis machine. It was doing the job of his kidneys, filtering his blood and pumping it back into his body through a different IV line.
I realized it wasn’t just about his liver anymore; all of his organs were starting to shut down. His body was being kept alive by machines. And, in that moment, that’s all he was to me: a body. This wasn’t my best friend. His lifeless shell, with its swollen face and jaundiced skin, looked more like a corpse that had been left out in the sun too long than it did Howie.
“God… what have they done to you, D?” I whispered, as I looked down at the hospital bed in dismay. “What have I done?”
I remembered when I’d first brought him to the hospital on New Year’s Eve, watching the doctors and nurses work on him in the emergency room, and for the first time, I regretted it. I thought I had saved his life that night, but now I realized I’d only prolonged his death. This was no way to go, this indecent, drawn-out process of dying of organ failure in the ICU. By comparison, dying of a drug overdose alone at home seemed almost peaceful. If I hadn’t intervened, Howie would have simply stopped breathing and slipped away in his sleep. But how could I have known?
“I’m sorry.” There was so much more I wanted to say, but the lump in my throat made it nearly impossible to speak. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to hear me, anyway. But just in case his senses were still working, I lifted his limp hand off the bed and brought it up to my lips, brushing a light kiss across his knuckles. For the first time in a month, I wasn’t worried about HIV or anyone thinking we were gay. I was saying goodbye to my best friend, my brother. “Love you, Howie,” I said and gave his hand a squeeze before setting it down again. Then I walked away, willing myself not to look back.
Kevin was waiting for me in the hallway, after all. He took one look at my face and said, “Wanna talk about it?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t ready.
We went back to the waiting room and sat with the others for awhile. They were sharing funny stories about Howie, trying to lighten the mood and laugh through their tears.
“Hey, Nick, remember that time we threw you out of the dressing room in your tighty-whities?” asked Brian with a big grin, trying to draw me into the conversation. “Would you believe that was really all Howie’s idea?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’d believe it now.” Was that just so he could see me in my underwear? I couldn’t help but wonder, and I hated Howie all over again for making me question his motives, for tarnishing my memories of him. I was still a kid when the infamous underwear incident had happened, and it creeped me out to think he could have had feelings for me back then. I couldn’t take hearing any more stories, so I stood up abruptly. “Sorry, guys, but I gotta get out of here.”
“Nick, wait,” Kevin protested. “We didn’t mean to embarrass you…”
“You didn’t,” I said shortly. “It’s not that. I just can’t stand sitting around here, waiting for him to…” I shook my head. “Sorry,” I said to Howie’s family, and then I reached for Lauren’s hand.
“We should be together,” AJ started to argue, but Brian said, “Let him go.” I looked at him gratefully, and he shot me a sympathetic smile. For a moment, we felt like Frick and Frack again – as if, even after all these years and everything that had happened with Howie, Brian still understood me better than anyone. I wasn’t sure that was true, but I appreciated his show of compassion all the same.
“I’ll call you if anything changes, okay?”
I nodded. “Okay. Thanks, Bri.”
By the time Lauren and I left the hospital, my head was swimming, but my eyes were still dry. I kept my composure as we walked quickly past a couple of paparazzi who were skulking around the front entrance. It wasn’t until we were in the car that the tears finally came.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” said Lauren, as she leaned over to hug me. “I wish there was something more we could do.”
I could still smell the faint stench of stale vomit lingering in my back seat, and it took me straight back to that night, when I’d held Howie’s head in my lap and breathed for him. I shook my head, trying to rid my mind of the memory. “I think we did too much.”
Lauren sat back in her seat. “What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes searching mine.
“You should have seen him, Lo,” I said quietly. “All hooked up to machines… That’s not how he wanted to go. Maybe it would have been better if we’d just let him die his way on New Year’s Eve. Then he wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.”
Lauren gave me a sympathetic smile. “I’m sure they’re keeping him as comfortable as possible… making sure he’s not in pain…”
“I know, but… that’s not what I mean.” I struggled to explain myself. “It’s just, with everything that’s been going on, I think Howie’s suffered enough.”
She nodded. “I see your point.”
I sighed. “Yeah, well, I don’t wanna talk about it anymore. Let’s just go home.”
“Whatever you wanna do. But how about I drive?”
I allowed her to trade places with me and take the wheel while I sat in the passenger seat, watching out the window as she drove us home in silence.
When we got home, Lauren took a long shower while I took my evening meds and got ready for bed. I was tired, but there was no way I was going to sleep. As I lay awake, replaying the evening’s events in my mind while I waited for her to come out of the bathroom, I thought back to our conversation in the car.
I hadn’t meant to blow her off, but I knew she wouldn’t understand the magnitude of the pain Howie had felt – not just physical pain, but emotional and mental anguish over what he had allowed to happen to himself, to his wife and son, and to me. I understood it because I had felt it, too. A fresh wave of it hit me in the face every time I looked at Lauren and wondered about our future together. What if she ended up testing positive, too? Would she still love me? And what if she stayed negative? Would she really marry a man whose days were numbered? Would she risk becoming infected, just to be intimate? Or would she start to resent me, the same way I’d hated Howie for what he had done to me?
I didn’t blame him for wanting to leave those feelings behind. But while Howie had found a way out for himself, he was also letting the rest of us shoulder his burden. Lauren and I weren’t getting off that easily. We still had to face this, now and for the rest of our lives.