Chapter 9


Howie

The four days I spent in L.A. before flying up to Sacramento were some of the loneliest of my whole life.  My wife wouldn’t talk to me, and neither would my best friend.  Whenever I tried to call Leigh, I would get her voicemail.  If I left her a message, asking how Holden was doing, she would send me a text, but she wouldn’t answer her phone.  Nick never responded at all.  I wanted to wait until the whole group was together to tell the other guys what was going on, so I avoided AJ and Kevin.  I didn’t talk to anyone.  I barely left the house.

The only time I did go out was to meet with an HIV specialist.  I had done my research, and Dr. Stephen Iverson was supposed to be one of the best in the nation.  I figured, as long as I was in Los Angeles, I would at least get my foot in the door for an appointment with him; if I liked him, I could bring the rest of my family out to see him the following week.  But walking into his office was harder than I’d thought it would be.

It was a cloudy, cool day in L.A., but the chill I felt as I climbed out of my car and looked up at the office building had nothing to do with the temperature.  Feeling vulnerable, I zipped up my jacket anyway and ducked my head as I walked quickly up the ramp to the entrance.  I could suddenly hear Nick’s voice in my head, saying, “All I need is the paparazzi taking pictures of us going into an AIDS clinic together like a couple of queers.”  The sign on the side of the building just said UCLA Medical Group, nothing about being an AIDS clinic, but that’s what it was, all the same.

I went inside and signed in, giving my name to the receptionist in a hushed voice.  She handed me a clipboard with some forms to fill out while I waited.  I kept glancing up from the paperwork, checking to see if anyone was looking my way.  I knew the chances of my being recognized were higher out here in L.A., where people expected to run into celebrities.  But the people in the waiting room seemed preoccupied, too caught up with their own worries and problems to pay attention to anyone else.

I, on the other hand, had spent the past week worrying about everyone but myself.   Finally, it was time to focus on me.  It was weird having to answer all the personal questions about my medical history the forms asked.  None of it seemed to apply to me.  I had always been healthy, never suffered so much as a broken bone, let alone any kind of serious illness.  I prided myself on taking good care of my body; I worked out regularly to stay in shape, and I tried to eat right, even when we were on the road.  For being forty, I thought I looked pretty good.  I felt good, too.  It was hard to believe I could be sick, but my HIV diagnosis lingered in the back of my mind like a dark shadow, casting doubt over all my other thoughts.

Should I have known there was something wrong with me?  Was there a way I could have caught this earlier and avoided infecting anyone else?  I looked at the long list of symptoms I was supposed to be checking off, wondering if there were any I had missed.  Most of them were pretty general – fever, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, headache – all part of the territory when you travel around the world, singing and dancing on stage for two hours every night.  I was pretty sure I’d had all of those symptoms at some point in the last six months, but I wasn’t experiencing any of them now.  I felt fine – and when I was finally in front of Dr. Iverson, I told him so.

“If it wasn’t for my son’s diagnosis, I never would have even thought to get tested,” I admitted.  “I haven’t felt sick at all.  But then again, my son didn’t seem sick either, until he came down with pneumonia.”

The doctor nodded knowingly.  “HIV is notorious for being a ‘silent’ infection.  People can have the virus for years without knowing it because they may not show symptoms until it progresses to full-blown AIDS.  Some people do have flu-like symptoms shortly after becoming infected, but not everyone.  You’re probably in what we call the ‘clinical latency’ phase, which means the virus is reproducing slowly without causing symptoms.  Even without treatment, this phase can last ten years or more, so you could go a long time without ever experiencing symptoms of the virus.  Unfortunately, because HIV does weaken the immune system, it can progress much faster than that, as it seems to have done in your son’s case.  Babies are more susceptible to infections because their immune systems are weaker to begin with.”

I knew he was only trying to explain why Holden had gotten sick so much faster than me, but his words made me squirm with guilt.  It should have been me, not Holden, who had ended up in the hospital.  It wasn’t fair that he was so sick while I was still well, when it my fault he had HIV in the first place.  I would never be able to forgive myself for what I’d done.

Dr. Iverson, seeming to sense he’d upset me, cleared his throat and quickly changed the subject.  “Well, Howie, what I’d like to do today is a baseline evaluation.  Once we finish going over your medical history, I’m going to give you a physical exam and get a blood sample so we can run some tests.  Once we know what stage your HIV is in, we’ll be able to make some decisions about starting treatment.  Sound like a plan?”

I nodded.  “Sounds good,” I said, even though it didn’t.  I wished I could be anywhere but sitting in that office, but it wasn’t like I had much of a choice.  It was either deal with this, right then and there, or curl up and die.  And I wasn’t ready to die.  Not then.

***

Dr. Iverson said he would call in a few days to go over my lab results.  In the meantime, I flew on up to Sacramento the following day for the first holiday show with the guys.  They didn’t know it yet, but it was the only show I planned to perform.  As much as I loved my career, now was not the time for me to be touring all over the country.  I needed to take care of my family, first and foremost.  I also needed to take care of myself.

We met for lunch at the hotel, where we had all reserved rooms.  I tried to make eye contact with Nick, wondering if he had gotten tested yet, but he wouldn’t look at me.  When the hostess came over to show us to our table, I caught Nick’s arm and held him back.

“Did you get tested?” I asked him in a whisper.

“Let go of me!” he hissed back, yanking his arm away.  He took off after the other guys, taking such long strides that I practically had to jog to catch up to him.

“Did you?” I repeated, my voice rising above a whisper.  I knew he would answer if I kept asking; he wouldn’t want the other guys to overhear.

Sure enough, without looking at me, Nick gave a short nod.  I could tell he was clenching his jaw, and the tension in his face made my heart start to race.

“And…?” I asked, afraid of what his answer would be.

“I dunno.  Results aren’t back yet,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth.

I frowned, wondering why he hadn’t taken my suggestion and gotten the rapid test.  If the results were positive, he would still need another test to confirm it, but either way, at least he would know.   It had been five days since I’d told him; I knew it had to be driving him crazy, not knowing, while worrying about the worst case scenario.  I knew because I’d been there myself, barely two weeks ago.  I wanted to put my arm around him and tell him it was going to be okay, that I would be there for him if he tested positive, that we could get through this together.  But I knew better.  Any show of support from me would only send him over the edge.  He seemed to be on the brink already, so I backed off.

We were seated at a table for five in a private section of the hotel restaurant.  It would be the perfect place to tell the other guys, away from prying eyes and listening ears, if only I could work up the courage to do so.  I decided to wait until after we ate; I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s appetite.

As we were all looking over our menus, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.  I took it out and was surprised to see a text from Nick:  “R u gonna tell them?”

I glanced up; he was glaring at me across the table, his phone in his hand.  I texted him back:  “After lunch.”

My phone buzzed again.  “U gonna tell them about me?”

It hurt that he had to ask, that he didn’t trust me not to tell his secrets.  The truth was, I would never tell the guys about what had happened with Nick.  That was our private business.  Unless he tested positive, too, they didn’t need to know, and if he did… well, then it would be up to him.  Either way, it wasn’t my place.

I started to text him that, but Kevin’s hand suddenly clamped down on my wrist, startling me so badly, I dropped my phone on the table.  “C’mon, fellas, let’s put the phones away at the table, huh?” he said.  “You too, Nick.”

I snatched my phone off the table before Kevin could see my messages and slipped it back into the safety of my pocket.

“Sure thing, Dad,” Nick said with a heavy sigh, rolling his eyes at Kevin.  He grudgingly put his phone away, too, and as he did, he gave me a significant glance, his eyes boring into mine.

I shook my head a fraction of an inch, hoping he’d get the message.  No, Nick.  I would never tell them about you.

The corners of his lips jerked upward in a flicker of a smile.  Message received.  The smile was gone as quickly as it had come, but still, Nick looked relieved, like at least one weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

Lunch was a long and agonizing affair.  I didn’t have much of an appetite; I hadn’t for days.  Across the table, Nick, too, just picked at his meal.  If Kevin, Brian, or AJ noticed, they didn’t comment on it.  They were too busy talking about their kids, which were often the topic of conversation among us these days.  Kids were the one thing we had in common, outside of our careers.  As the only Backstreet Boy who wasn’t yet a dad, Nick never had much to contribute and typically tuned out of these conversations, so no one seemed too concerned by how quiet he was being.  On a normal day, Nick would try to change the subject at some point, but not that day.  While the others talked, he just sat there in silence, staring down at the uneaten food on his plate.

“How’s Holden doing, Howie?” AJ asked, after he’d finished telling us about Ava’s first birthday party.  Again, I was wracked with guilt – not because I had skipped out on Ava’s party, but because I was thinking about my own baby boy, who would turn one in two months.  How many more birthdays would Holden be able to celebrate?  Because of me, that number was probably much less than it would have been.  I couldn’t blame Leigh for barely speaking to me; she had every right to be angry.  As much as it hurt to admit it, my actions had shortened our son’s lifespan.

I gave a guarded answer to AJ’s question.  “He’s… doing okay, under the circumstances.  His lungs are still healing from the pneumonia, so he’s on oxygen to help his breathing for now, but it’s good to have him home from the hospital.”

“I’m sure it was hard to leave him to come out here,” Brian said sympathetically.  “I still hate leaving Baylee, even though he’s a big boy now.”  He grinned.

I smiled back and nodded, thinking, You have no idea.

After we finished eating, when our plates had been cleared away and the offer of dessert declined, I took a deep breath and said, “Hey guys, I have something to tell you.”

They all looked at me, except for Nick, who looked down at his lap.

I cleared my throat nervously.  “Um… I wasn’t being completely honest with you before, when I talked about how Holden was doing.  Holden’s not okay.  He has AIDS.”

Their mouths all dropped open, even Nick’s.  He hadn’t seen that one coming, hadn’t let me stay long enough to explain everything.  Now he was staring at me, his eyes wide with shock, his face stricken.

“Holy shit, dude, are you serious?” AJ gasped.

“Oh my god,” Kevin murmured, when I nodded.  “Howie…”

“I don’t understand,” said Brian, shaking his head slowly.  “How could that happen?  How could he have AIDS?”

Nick’s eyes were wider than ever; he had realized what the others were about to hear from me.  I took a shuddering breath, steeling myself for their reactions, and looked down at the table.  “He got it from Leigh… and she got it from me.”

“You have it too?” asked AJ.  I looked up to find him staring at me in disbelief.  His eyes were the saddest I’d ever seen, and there were so many deep creases etched across his forehead, he suddenly seemed to have aged a decade.  It killed me to see that look on the face of my oldest friend.

I sighed.  “I’m HIV-positive, yeah.  We found out a couple of weeks ago, after Holden was diagnosed.”

“But how-?” Brian started to ask again, then trailed off, still shaking his head.  He’d probably just realized he didn’t want to know, but I felt like I had to tell them the truth.  Some version of the truth, anyway.

“It’s all my fault.  I… I had a one-night stand a few months ago and must’ve gotten myself infected then.  I didn’t know.  What I did… it was so stupid, but honestly…”  I glanced at Nick.  “I didn’t know.”

***

After much discussion, we took the stage at the Ace of Spades music venue that night for what we’d decided would be the last time – for awhile, anyway.  I didn’t know what the future held for me as a performer, but I did know I needed to put my health and family first.  The guys agreed.  Although I gave them my blessing to go ahead with the other shows, they flat out refused to tour without me.

“We’ve made this mistake too many times before,” Kevin said firmly.  “We’ve seen what happens when we let the business become a bigger priority than our health…”  He looked at Brian, who was nodding knowingly.  “…or our families…”  His eyes shifted to Nick, who was staring determinedly down at the floor.  “…or our emotional well-being.”  His gaze landed on AJ, who still had that haunted look in his eyes.  “When something bad happens or we suffer some kind of loss, we need to take the time to grieve and get our lives back together.  Otherwise, we’ll just end up falling apart later.  We know this.  We’ve been there, done that, right?”

We all nodded.

“This time is no different,” Kevin concluded.  “I know we don’t wanna disappoint the fans, but our fans don’t wanna see a half-assed show, either.  They wanna see all five of us onstage, happy and healthy.  Until we can give them that, I say we take some time off.”

No one could argue with that logic.

There wasn’t time to back out of the Sacramento show without leaving the concert promoters in a lurch, so, being professionals, we played our set.  It wasn’t our best, but I’m sure it wasn’t our worst either.  Even Nick and I managed to set our differences aside and do what needed to be done.  As they say in show business, “The show must go on,” so I buried everything deep down inside me before we took the stage, determined not to let it get to me.

The concert didn’t go off completely without a hitch, though.  I made it through the first few songs with no trouble, but in the middle of “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of),” all my emotions – all the guilt, shame, and fear I’d been feeling for the last two weeks – came bubbling back to the surface.  Usually it was Kevin who got choked up during his verse, but this time, as I listened to him sing, “The gloves are off, ready to fight.  Like a lion, I will survive.  Will I?  Will I?” I felt my own throat start to close, as my eyes filled with tears.  “You gotta stand for somethin’, even if you stand alone.  Don’t be afraid.  It’s gonna be all right…”

Blinking back the tears, I looked over at Nick, who was standing next to me.  He was unusually sedate, staying in one place on the stage instead of bouncing all around to a beat only he seemed to be able to hear.  We all made fun of him for his spazzy Muppet dance moves, but I missed them that night.  Still, his voice sounded as strong as ever when he started to sing, “You find the truth in a child’s eyes, where the only limit is the sky.  Living proof, I see myself in you.”

“When walls start to close in, your heart is frozen…”  I struggled through the chorus, trying to regain my composure.  I couldn’t look at Nick anymore; he only served as a reminder of how much I’d screwed up.  My solo was next; I had to get it together.

But as soon as I started to sing the words, “You find the truth in a child’s eyes…” I thought of Holden, who had my eyes, and I fell apart.

AJ quickly came to my rescue, finishing the bridge as I turned around and walked to the back of the stage to wipe my eyes.  I could hear the fans screaming in a show of support for me, but it didn’t make me feel any better.  I knew that once the show was over and the videos made it online, they would start speculating as to what had sparked such an emotional reaction.  They had been speculating ever since I’d skipped out on our appearances in Germany, leaving the guys to explain my absence in every interview they did without me.  The official excuse was that my son was sick, but no one knew the extent of it.

So that night, after the show, we released a statement.

“We regret to announce that we will be pulling out of the remainder of our scheduled holiday shows in support of our brother Howie, who is dealing with a serious illness in his family.  We wish Howie and the whole Dorough family the best and thank our fans for their love, support, prayers, and understanding.  We ask that everyone respect the Dorough family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

Of course, the rampant speculation didn’t stop after that; if anything, it escalated.  The fans and media were alike in wondering what was wrong with my son, not realizing that when we referred to an illness in the family, we meant it literally.  With the exception of James, it was my whole family that had it, not just Holden.  But I wasn’t ready to make that announcement yet.  Telling the guys was one thing.  Telling the whole world was quite another.

***


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