Holden’s first birthday was February 16, 2014, almost three months after his AIDS diagnosis. It was a bittersweet occasion, because while any baby’s first birthday is worth celebrating, I wasn’t sure how many more birthdays my baby would have.
Leigh said he was doing well, but I wouldn’t know. I hadn’t seen either of my sons since Thanksgiving and wasn’t sure when I would. Six weeks after my transplant, I was still recovering, and with my immune system suppressed, I wasn’t supposed to travel. I hadn’t even gotten cleared to drive yet, and flying was out of the question for another two months.
The European leg of our tour was supposed to be starting in two days, but suffice it to say that the Backstreet Boys wouldn’t be performing in Lisbon, Portugal on Tuesday. We had released yet another announcement through our publicist, postponing the rest of the tour indefinitely. So with nowhere to be, no one to see, and nothing to do, I was starting to feel pretty depressed and stir-crazy at Nick’s place.
I had started seeing a counselor that Dr. Zediar, the psychiatrist at the hospital, had referred me to, and even tried attending a transplant support group that Dr. Parker told me about, but I hadn’t found any of it particularly helpful. It was still hard for me to talk about everything that had happened since we’d found out about Holden’s AIDS.
As the days passed, I missed my family more and more. I was desperate to see my kids, but unless Leigh decided to bring them to me, there wasn’t much I could do. I was at the mercy of my estranged wife.
But on Holden’s birthday, after three months of barely speaking to me, she decided to be merciful and let me Skype with the boys. I was sitting in Nick’s spare room with my laptop, my eyes glued to the screen, when James and Holden appeared. “Hi, Daddy!” James shouted, waving into the webcam.
“Wave, Holden!” I heard Leigh prompting the baby in the background. “Wave to Daddy!” My eyes filled with tears as my little blonde boy flailed his chubby hand around. I thought he looked healthier than he had the last time I’d seen him, though it was hard to tell on the grainy camera feed.
“Hi, boys!” I choked out. “It’s so good to see you guys. Daddy misses you.”
“Daddy, where are you?” asked James.
I swallowed hard, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “I’m still in California, buddy. I’ve been sick, like Mommy told you, but I’m getting better.”
“But when are you coming back?”
His question broke my heart. “I don’t know yet. It’s too far for me to travel right now, but as soon as I can, I’ll come and see you. Maybe I’ll be able to come back for your birthday. How’s that sound, buddy?”
“Hey, guess what? Today is Holden’s birthday!” James announced proudly.
“I know! Happy birthday, Holden!”
At the sound of his name, Holden babbled something unintelligible. I listened hopefully for him to say “Dada,” but didn’t hear it.
“Yeah, he’s one now,” James was saying, “and I’m four.”
I chuckled. “I know, bud. You’re such a big boy. Holden’s lucky to have you for his big brother.”
“Yeah… but he doesn’t share so good,” said James, frowning. “Holden, um, he always tries to take my toys, and Mommy says he can’t play with them ‘cause he’ll put the pieces in his mouth and choke on ‘em, probably, but he does anyway.”
“Well, it’s good that you’re there to keep an eye on him.”
“Yeah… but I hope you come home soon, Daddy, ‘cause I like playing with you more.”
I felt tears spring to my eyes again and quickly blinked them away. “Aww, me too, buddy. But I bet you’re having lots of fun with Grandma and Grandpa, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess,” James answered with more honesty than enthusiasm, and I laughed.
“I sure do love you, J-Man.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
Dad… My little boy was growing up before my eyes. It made me sad that I had to watch him through a computer screen, when I wanted so badly to see him in person. I was missing out on so much by not being there.
“Hey, James,” I heard Leigh say from off-screen. “Should we have Holden show Daddy his new trick?”
“Ooh, yeah! Hey Dad, watch what Holden can do!” James called excitedly.
A few seconds of confusion followed, as a hand appeared to reposition the camera. When the picture cleared, I could see Holden standing barefoot on the floor. Leigh was standing behind him, holding onto both of his hands. She was only visible from the waist-down, but I would know my wife’s legs anywhere.
“Holden, go to James,” Leigh coached him. “Go see Brother.”
At the same time, I could hear James clapping his hands and calling, “Come here, Holden! C’mon, you can do it! Here, Holden!”
I watched through misty eyes as my baby boy took one tentative step and then another. Leigh let go of his hands as he toddled toward James, still holding his arms out to help himself balance.
“Wow! He’s really chugging away, huh? Good job, Holden!” I cheered, wiping my eyes. “How long has he been walking?”
“Just about a week,” answered Leigh, her face appearing on my screen for the first time as she scooped up Holden and sat down in front of her computer, holding him in her lap. “He’s really getting the hang of it.”
“So… he’s doing okay, then? He’s still on track with where he’s supposed to be, developmentally?”
She nodded. “Dr. Parr said the AIDS doesn’t seem to have delayed any of his major milestones, so far.”
“Well, that’s good. How about taking his medicine? Has that been going better?”
“We’ve adjusted,” she said shortly, shifting Holden in her lap.
“And how about you?” I asked. “How are you doing?”
She hesitated, and then I heard her say, “Hey, James, why don’t you take Holden and go play with Grandpa for a few minutes while I talk to Daddy about some grown-up stuff?”
“No, but-” I heard James start to whine, until Leigh got stern with him.
“James, I said go in the other room and play. Right now. You can come back and say goodbye in a little bit.”
James went stomping off, dragging Holden by the hand. Alone in the room, Leigh looked at me through her computer screen. “Listen, Howie,” she said. “I hate to have to break this to you on Holden’s birthday, but I don’t want it be a surprise later. I’m having some papers delivered to the house in L.A. sometime this week. Divorce papers.”
My heart sank. “You’re filing for divorce?” I asked in disbelief.
“I already did. Like I said, you should be served with the paperwork later this week.”
I couldn’t believe how cold she sounded. “Leigh, please… please don’t do this,” I begged. “I know we can work through this, if you’d just give us the chance.”
Leigh shook her head slowly. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, Howie, and I honestly don’t think we can.”
“Why not?” I sputtered. “Look, I know I screwed up, but Leigh… I still love you, and I love our family and the life we had before all this happened. Why can’t we at least try to make it work?”
She cleared her throat. “I loved you and our life together, too, but I feel like we were living a lie – or, at least, you were. If you really loved me the way a husband is supposed to love his wife, you wouldn’t have done what you did. I’ll always love you, Howie, but I deserve better. I know that now.”
“But… but what about the vows we took? In sickness and in health… Don’t those words mean anything to you?” I asked desperately.
“Not anymore. You broke our vows the day you decided to sleep with someone else.”
I hung my head, knowing then that there was nothing else I could do or say to save our marriage. I never thought I’d be the guy who got divorced, but then, I also didn’t think I was the type of husband who cheats on his wife. Leigh was right. She did deserve better.
“For what it’s worth… I’m sorry,” I offered, struggling to hold back tears. “I’m sorry for everything.”
“I know,” she said, her voice softening. “I’m not out to punish you, Howie. I hope we can work together and make the divorce proceedings go as smoothly as possible. I’m not asking for much; I don’t want half your money or the condo, and I’m not going to try to take your kids away. We can work out some kind of custody arrangement that allows both of us to see the boys. I want this to be amicable, okay? For their sake.”
I sighed, letting it all sink in. After a few seconds, I finally said, “Okay.”
It wasn’t okay with me, not at all, but what else was there to say? My wife had already made up her mind. After six years, our marriage was over.