A part of me had hoped that when Howie announced he was leaving, we would just cancel the rest of our appearances and go home, too. But, of course, we didn’t. We had done interviews and performed as a foursome plenty of times before, so I knew this time would be no different. The day after Howie flew back to the States, we got up and headed to Germany, the last country on our itinerary. We had four days worth of appearances booked in three different German cities. I was already counting down the days until I could go home and sleep.
It just seemed like my body had never quite recovered from the cruise. Granted, we’d only had about a week off between coming home from Miami and leaving again for Amsterdam. That was probably why. When I got home, I planned to go straight to bed and stay there for a week. A week was all I could afford: after that, I’d be back on the road for another two weeks, doing all the holiday shows we’d agreed to play. And after that? Two months off. We weren’t scheduled to go back on tour until mid-February. I could spend the holidays at home with Lauren and help her with wedding plans. We were supposed to start shooting a reality show for Vh1 that would document all the wedding stuff, so that would keep me busy, and I was still trying to produce a horror movie, too, but at least I could work from home for awhile, at my own pace. I thought I would be ready to tackle all my projects in the new year after a nice, long break, but fate had other plans for me.
Looking back on that promotional trip to Europe, if I’d known it would be the last hoorah before my life went to hell, I would have tried to make the most of it. But as the saying goes, hindsight is twenty-twenty. As I rode through the city of Hamburg, I watched the sights fly by my window without really seeing any of them. My eyes were glazed. My head was pounding. It had been ever since we’d finished taping our appearance on Markus Lanz, a German talk show. I’ve always hated doing interviews for foreign TV; it’s hard work, trying to interact normally with a host who’s talking to me in a language I don’t understand, while listening for the translation of what he’s asking in my ear. It requires a good amount of concentration, and everyone knows I have the attention span of a goldfish. No wonder my head hurt.
I leaned it wearily against the van window, hoping the coolness of the glass would relieve some of the pain. It helped a little, but not much. I wished we were heading back to the hotel so I could lie down for awhile, but we had already checked out. We were going straight to the airport to catch a plane to the next city, Cologne. I would have to settle for a quick power nap on the way.
I had just closed my eyes for a second when I heard the sound of my name. My eyes flew open again, and I lifted my head to find AJ looking at me.
“Huh?” I could tell he had just asked me a question, but I had no idea what it was.
He rolled his eyes. “I said, what are your thoughts, Nick?”
AJ snorted. “Duh, on dinner? That thing we’ve been discussing for the last five minutes?”
“Oh. Sorry, dude, I was spacing out.” I gave him a sheepish smile as the others laughed, all too used to my spaciness to be concerned. “I don’t care where we stop for dinner. I’m not that hungry.”
Kevin turned around in his seat to frown at me. “You okay?” he asked. You could always count on Kevin to notice when something was wrong. He had never known me to miss a meal.
I shrugged. “I’m just tired.”
“No kidding,” he said, nodding. “I think we all are. It’s gonna be a late night and an early morning.”
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned, dragging my hands down my face. We weren’t scheduled to get to Cologne until after ten p.m., and we had an early wake-up call the next day for an appearance on yet another morning show.
“Three more days,” Kevin said encouragingly. “Then we can all go home and sleep.”
“Hey, speaking of going home,” Brian spoke up, turning around in his seat, too, “anyone heard from Howie yet today?”
We all shook our heads. It seemed none of us had talked to Howie since he’d texted the night before to tell us he’d made it home. No word on how Holden was doing.
“It’s six o’clock, so that means it’s… noon in Florida,” calculated Kevin, holding up his phone. “I’ll give him a call and find out what’s going on.”
We all listened in as Kevin talked to Howie. “Hey, man, how’s it goin’? We just finished taping an interview and were wondering how y’all were holding up. How’s Holden?”
There was a long pause while Kevin listened, occasionally nodding and murmuring, “Mm-hm…”
“Put him on speaker!” AJ hissed, but Kevin ignored him, jamming his finger in his ear. His brow was furrowed with a look of deep concentration. The rest of us exchanged looks of exasperation, rolling our eyes at each other. Kevin could be such an old man sometimes.
“Well?” said AJ impatiently, when Kevin got off the phone a few minutes later. “What did he say?” It had been hard to tell from our end; Kevin had asked a lot of questions, but hadn’t relayed any of Howie’s answers.
Kevin slid his phone into his pocket. “Holden’s still in the hospital,” he said slowly. “I guess he’s got some kind of virus. Howie said they’re running more tests.”
Brian frowned. “Sounds serious… Did he say anything else?”
“No.” Kevin shook his head and shrugged. “He said he had to go.”
We all looked at each other, silently wondering. For a few seconds, no one said anything. Then Brian said, “I tell ya… there’s nothing worse in the world than watching your child go through something like that. When Baylee was in the hospital, Leighanne and I worried ourselves sick.”
“And Holden’s so young,” Kevin added. “If it were Max… or even Mason, for that matter…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “I can’t imagine.”
I couldn’t either. Unlike the others, I didn’t know how it felt to be a father – a fact which I’d been reminded of in just about every interview we’d done that year. Every album cycle, there are certain questions that get asked by just about everyone who interviews us, and this year, two of the big ones were about Kevin’s return and kids – or Kinder, as they call them in German. Time and time again, I found myself forcing a smile as people pointed out that I was the only Backstreet Boy who wasn’t married with children, cracking the same tired joke about being an overgrown kid myself. It was getting so old that the other guys had started saying it for me. I didn’t even know if I wanted kids, but people don’t like to hear that, so I’d learned to smile and make jokes to dodge the questions.
Anyway, not knowing what it was like to have a child, a little Mini-Me that I loved with all my heart and would give my own life to protect, I couldn’t fully empathize with what Howie was going through. I could sympathize, though. And despite everything, all the awkwardness that existed between us, I did. Howie was still my brother, and I felt bad for him.
“I wish there was something we could do,” I said. “It sucks that we’re so far away.” Again, a selfish part of me wished we would just cancel the rest of our appearances and fly home, but that was a stupid thing to wish for. We would only do that if things got really bad, like they had been for Howie’s dad, and I would never wish for something like that.
“We can pray,” said Brian, and the rest of us nodded. I’m not a spiritual guy myself, but I would never argue with Brian about the power of prayer. Praying was the least I could do for my friend and his family.
So that night during dinner, we did say a prayer, asking God to guide Holden’s doctors in finding out what was wrong with him so they could make him better, not knowing that they already knew, or that there was a lot more to the story than Howie was letting on.