When I was a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, I found a baby bird that had broken its neck falling out of the nest. It couldn’t fly, couldn’t even flap its wings, but somehow, it was still alive. I remember its tiny beak opening and closing as its black eyes stared up at me, as if it were asking me to help it. In hindsight, it may have been begging me to put it out of its misery. But, being “tender-hearted,” as my mama always called me, I was determined to save the bird’s life.
I brought it inside, where my dad promptly told me it was pointless to try saving a bird with a broken neck. “I doubt it’ll live more than a few hours like this, but even if it does, it won’t be able to survive in the wild if it can’t fly or fend for itself. You wouldn’t be keeping it alive, son - you’d just be drawing out its death,” he explained in his pragmatic way. “The kinder thing to do would be to crush its skull and kill it instantly. I know that sounds cruel, but at least the poor creature wouldn’t be suffering anymore.”
Of course, I cried and vowed to take care of the bird, to nurse it back to health and teach it to fly. “And if it can’t, then I’ll keep it as a pet,” I told my parents. “It can live in a cage in my room.” They didn’t even bother to tell me no, knowing the bird wouldn’t make it through the night. All that day, I tended to it, squirting water into its beak with an eyedropper and digging for worms to try feeding it with. I even created a little neck brace for it with Band-aids and cotton balls. The bird was still alive when I went to bed that night, but when I woke up the next morning, I found it dead in the nest I’d built out of old washcloths inside a shoebox. I buried it in that same box and held a funeral for it, fashioning a cross out of two sticks tied together with twine for its tombstone. My dad was nice enough not to say, “I told you so,” and I was too stubborn to admit he had been right.
I wondered what he would say to me now, as I lay in a hospital bed as a thirty-six-year-old man, faced with the humiliation of letting my mom feed me. As I opened my mouth for her to spoon another bite of applesauce into it, I couldn’t help but feel like that baby bird, broken neck and all. Maybe it would have been kinder for someone to kill me and put me out of my misery. I would never let my mom hear me say that, especially not when she had put her whole life on hold to be here and take care of me. But I thought my dad would have understood. I knew how hard it had been for him to depend on other people in his final days, when he was too sick to get out of bed. The difference was, he was dying. I had to learn to live like this.
“Have you given any more thought to where you’d like to go for rehab?” my mom asked, as she wiped the corner of my mouth with a napkin. “I really think that place in Atlanta sounds perfect, and Brian said he and Leighanne would have no problem at all with me staying at their house while they’re on tour.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. What was the point of her asking my opinion when she had already made up her own mind on where she wanted me to go? “I told you, Ma, I don’t wanna go to Atlanta - or Chicago or Louisville or anywhere else,” I added before she could bring up one of the other hospitals she had researched. “I wanna stay in Southern California. Phil said there’s a couple of good, fully-accredited rehab facilities right here in Los Angeles County.”
“But are they nationally ranked for their success with treating spinal cord injuries?” she pressed. “Honey, you need to go wherever will give you the best chance of getting back your life, whether that’s across the country or halfway around the world. You deserve the best, and you can afford the best. You don’t have to settle for whatever hospital the insurance company will cover. You’ve got the means to go anywhere.”
I sighed. “It’s not about the money - although, since you brought it up, I don’t think it would be smart to spend thousands of dollars paying out of pocket for a place that’s not in my network. Sure, I have plenty of money now, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to make more of it. What happens when that money runs out?”
This was the same point Kristin’s dad had made to me the previous day, when he’d stopped by to discuss suing the girl who had hit us. After an investigation, the police had determined her to be at fault for the accident, and she had since been arrested and charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Just knowing it wasn’t my fault and that the woman responsible for killing my wife would be prosecuted was enough for me, but my father-in-law wanted to take it further by filing a civil suit. “It’s the only way to get some kind of financial compensation for Kristin’s death and your injuries,” he told me.
At first, I wanted nothing to do with it. “I don’t care about money,” I said. “I’m a millionaire; I don’t need any kind of financial compensation.”
“You say that now, but think about the future. Think about what this could do to your career, your source of income. Think about the medical bills that will be coming your way, not to mention the cost of the equipment you’ll need and renovations to make your house wheelchair-accessible. And most of all, you need to think about Mason and his future. You want to make sure you have enough money left in the bank to give him a good life and put him through college someday, right?”
It was a lot to think about, but in the end, I agreed to let him file the lawsuit on Kristin’s and my behalf. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with it, but it was the best decision for Mason, and it seemed to make her dad feel better.
My mom, on the other hand, didn’t want to talk about money. “You don’t need to worry about that right now,” she said, shaking her head. “You just focus on getting back on your feet, and let me handle the financial stuff.”
“You heard what Dr. Bone said: I’m never getting back on my feet. I’m probably never gonna perform again either.”
“Now don’t be so negative,” she scolded me. “You don’t know that.”
“I’m not being negative, Ma. I’m just being realistic. There’s a reason they didn’t make any more Superman movies with Christopher Reeve after his accident. No one wants to watch a superhero in a wheelchair, and they won’t wanna see a popstar in one either. It’s too damn depressing.”
“Oh, hush. Now you’re just feeling sorry for yourself. You have fans all around the world who love you no matter what and would pay good money to see you perform again, even if it is from a chair. You may not be able to dance anymore, but you can still make music.”
I snorted. “With what? I can’t play the piano or write lyrics. I’m not even sure I can still sing. Face it, Ma - my music career’s over. And since I don’t have a degree or any other marketable skills, I think it would be best for me to save my money until I figure out how I’m gonna support myself down the road,” I said, remembering my conversation with Kristin’s dad. “Don’t forget, I have Mason’s future to think about, too.”
“Mason will be just fine,” she insisted, dipping her spoon back into the applesauce container. “And so will you. You’re lucky to have a family who loves you and is here to support you however we can - physically, emotionally, and financially. We’ll make sure you’re both taken care of.” She brought another bite of applesauce to my mouth, but this time, I kept it closed.
“No, thanks,” I mumbled, barely moving my lips. “I’m finished.”
She gave me a long look. “Now you better eat more than that, or they’re going to put that feeding tube back in your nose. You need your strength to recover.”
“I’m not hungry.”
I could tell she was frustrated, but she didn’t try to force-feed me. “Well, I’ll leave this here awhile in case you get hungry again later,” she said, setting the half-eaten cup of applesauce down on the tray beside my bed.
After several days of working with a speech therapist to make sure I was still able to swallow correctly, it had been a relief to have my NG tube removed so I could finally eat and drink again. When the nurse filled a cup with water and brought the straw to my lips for the first time, you’d have thought I was sipping the nectar of the gods based on my reaction. Plain old room-temperature water had never felt or tasted so good going down my parched throat. A cup of chicken broth was like a full-course meal compared to the beige nutrient paste they had been shooting up my nose with a syringe. But the novelty wore off quickly when I realized that, without the use of my hands, I would have to be fed like a baby. At least Mason had recently learned to hold his own bottle. I couldn’t even do that much. It was embarrassing, having to be helped with the most mundane tasks.
My mom never seemed to mind, but I did. That was the main reason I wanted to stay on the West Coast for rehab. I knew if I went anywhere near Kentucky, I would be stuck there. The thought of moving back into my mother’s house as a grown man so she could take care of me was beyond humiliating. It was downright depressing. I loved my family, but I also loved my freedom. I had been on my own for over fifteen years, since I’d moved back to Florida after my dad’s death. I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, especially not my aging mother. She deserved to enjoy her golden years without the burden of caring for a disabled son or raising a grandchild. California had been my home for the past seven years, and it was the only home Mason had ever known. I was determined to rebuild our lives here.
“Are you sure I can’t get you anything else?” she asked. “How about a milkshake from the café? Wouldn’t that taste good?”
“Actually, I think I just wanna lie down for a while. I’m starting to get light-headed again.” This was a fib - my tolerance for sitting up had gotten a lot better over the last week or so, ever since I’d been moved out of the ICU and into a new room in the step-down unit - but I knew it would get her off my back about eating. “Can you please push the button to lower my bed?”
“Sure, hon. Here you go.” I heard the bed hum as the head slowly went back down. She made sure I was comfortable, repositioning the pillows around my body the way she had seen the nurses do. Then she sat down next to my bed and picked up her book to read while I closed my eyes and pretended to doze.
I felt bad for giving her a hard time. My mom had the patience of a saint, and I had put her through hell. I knew she only wanted what was best for me. The problem was, her ideas about what was best for me were different from mine.
I hadn’t been faking sleep for long when the respiratory therapist, Christopher, came in to give me a breathing treatment and clear my lungs with the cough assist machine. My lung capacity had improved to the point that I no longer needed to be on oxygen around the clock, but he continued to monitor me closely to make sure I didn’t develop pneumonia. “I can tell you’ve been doing your breathing exercises,” he told me, smiling, as he listened to my chest with his stethoscope. “Considering how recently you were injured, you’re doing amazingly well. All that singing and dancing you did before your accident must have kept your lungs in great shape.”
I forced myself to smile back, knowing he meant it as a compliment, but all I could focus on were the words “before your accident.” They were a sad reminder of what I had lost. I wasn’t going to be doing all that singing and dancing anymore - not with the Backstreet Boys, not with a Broadway ensemble, and not with my wife. That part of my life had passed. My success was no longer defined by awards or album sales, but by how many milliliters of air I could inhale or how many minutes I could sit up in bed.
Christopher was followed by Phil, who arrived for my afternoon physical therapy session. My mom stayed and watched as he stretched my arms and legs, asking him all kinds of questions about the rehab centers he had recommended in Southern California. I had to hand it to Phil - by the end of the session, he had her all but convinced that staying close to home was the right decision.
“You can take a tour of either facility,” he told her, “and I highly suggest you do. It’s always a good idea to see the inside of a place and talk to the people who work there. That’ll give you a better feel for what it’s actually like so you can make a more informed decision. I can have Kevin’s case manager call and set something up for you if you’d like.”
“Oh, yes, that would be wonderful!” my mom gushed. “Maybe I’ll get Brian to go with me and see what he thinks, too.”
“Just remember, Brian’s busy with rehearsals now,” I reminded her. “If he wants to go, great, but don’t bug him too much about it.”
“I won’t, but I’m sure he’ll want to go. He can’t wait for you to get back on your feet either.”
I caught Phil’s eye when I heard her use that phrase again: “Back on your feet.” It was only an expression, but it bothered me every time someone said it. It made me feel as if they were expecting me to walk again someday, and I would be letting them down if I didn’t.
Phil winked to show he understood. He and I both knew I was probably never going to get back on my feet by myself, but I wasn’t sure my mother or Brian or anyone else in my life had fully accepted that fact yet. The medical experts may have said it was impossible, but my family and friends were still praying for a miracle.
“I don’t know about getting back on your feet, but how about getting your feet back on the ground?” Phil asked me with a grin. “You’ve been doing so well with sitting upright, I bet you could sit on the side of the bed with some assistance. Wanna give it a try before I go?”
“Yeah… that’d be great,” I agreed, grinning back. I accepted every challenge he threw my way, even when it was painful, wanting to push myself to get stronger so I could regain as much function as possible.
“Sounds good. Let me grab a nurse to help out, and we’ll get started.” Phil left the room, but when he returned a few minutes later, he didn’t have a nurse with him. “Hey, look who I ran into in the hallway!” he announced, as Brian, AJ, Howie, and Nick followed him in.
“What were these dipshits doing hanging around a hospital?” I tried to play it cool, but I couldn’t hide my smile. Visits from my brothers were the best part of my day; they broke up the monotony of lying in bed. They were less frequent now that the boys had rehearsal every day, but at least all four of them were all allowed to be in my room on the step-down floor at the same time.
“Aw, Kevy, you know we just can’t keep ourselves away,” AJ shot back, batting his eyelashes at me.
“Yeah… Boner here has a medical fetish,” Brian joked.
Nick let out a loud laugh. “AJ may be into some kinky shit, but he’s the last person in the world to have a medical fetish.” He paused, then added, “That’s actually Howie.”
“It is not!” Howie squawked, smacking Nick in the shoulder.
“Well, you did say you wanted to be a doctor, dawg. I just assumed that meant you liked to, you know… ‘play doctor.’” He made air quotes with his fingers, grinning as Howie went red.
Nick’s face was flushed as well, and AJ’s t-shirt was soaked with sweat. They must have come straight from the rehearsal studio. “Damn, y’all stank!” I said, wrinkling my nose. “Didn’t bother to shower before you came to see me, huh?”
“Sorry, bro, we would’ve, but Brian told us your sense of smell was paralyzed, too,” Nick went on.
Brian’s mouth dropped open. “Dude! I did not. That doesn’t even make sense.”
The other guys were looking at Nick like he’d said something offensive. But I knew better than to be offended. He was trying too hard to be funny, but it was only because he was uncomfortable and maybe even a little nervous around me. I couldn’t hold it against him. Medical fetishists aside, no one really likes hospitals, and seeing a close friend in my condition would make anyone feel uncomfortable.
I decided to change the subject.
“Well, y’all turned up just in time for today’s main event. Phil’s gonna sit me up on the side of the bed.”
“Wow! That’s great, Kevin!” said Howie with an encouraging smile. Nick, Brian, and AJ all nodded, seeming genuinely excited for me. But I saw the way their expressions changed, their smiles fading to frowns, as they watched the physical therapist maneuver my dead weight.
It was a painstaking process. First Phil had to bend my knees so that my feet were planted flat against the bed, supporting my legs with his hand to keep them from flopping over. Then he folded my arms across my chest and carefully rolled me onto my left side. He slowly raised the head of the bed to prop me up a little, then placed his hands beneath my shoulder and behind my knees. I felt like a large baby being cradled in his arms as he swung my legs over the side of the bed and lifted me into a seated position.
It was the first time since my injury that I had sat up without the support of the bed behind my back and head, and I felt the difference immediately. Without my abdominal muscles, I had no core strength, no sense of balance or stability. I was wearing the girdle he had given me beneath my hospital gown, but it wasn’t enough. Phil still had to keep a firm hand on my shoulder to prevent me from flopping over as he lowered the bed so my feet could touch the floor. But I couldn’t feel any kind of surface beneath me - not the tiles under my feet, nor the mattress under my seat. I may as well have been floating several feet above the bed. It was a strange sensation.
“How does that feel, Kevin?” Phil asked me.
“Weird,” I admitted. My voice sounded as shaky and weak as my body felt. My neck hurt inside its brace, and my head felt heavy, yet light, like I could faint and fall over at any time. “I’m a little woozy,” I added, as the sense of vertigo worsened.
“That’s normal,” he assured me. “Your new body’s not used to sitting unsupported. You’ll need some balance training to teach it how to stay up.” He turned to the boys. “Can I get a couple of you to come stand on either side of him while I check his blood pressure?”
Brian and AJ both hurried over to help. “Just put your hand on his shoulder to hold him steady,” he instructed them. “There you go.”
“How you doin’, cous?” Brian asked, as he hung onto my arm.
I swallowed hard, fighting the urge to vomit applesauce all over his feet. “I’m okay.”
AJ smiled down at me. “You’re looking good, Kev.”
I made a face as I pictured myself the way I must have actually looked, hunched on the edge of the bed with my bare ass peeking out the open back of my printed hospital gown and my pale legs dangling uselessly in their long, white compression stockings. Pitiful.
I was self-conscious about the catheter tube taped to my thigh, which came out the bottom of my gown and connected to the pee bag hanging on the side of my bed. I kept waiting for one of the guys to crack some kind of joke about it, but none of them did. In a way, that made it worse.
Phil strapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm and inflated it. “Eighty-four over fifty,” he announced when he finished.
“Is that too low?” my mom asked anxiously. “Should he lie down again?”
“It’s not bad, considering his baseline.” Phil looked at me. “Are you still doing okay, Kevin, or do you need to lie down?”
My head was swimming, but I was determined to fight through the dizziness. “I’m okay,” I said again. I could feel everyone in the room watching me, which made me feel even more uncomfortable. I avoided their eyes, focusing instead on a wet spot on the front of Nick’s white t-shirt. “Looks like y’all got a good workout at rehearsal today,” I said. “How’d it go?”
Nick and Howie exchanged glances. “It was fine,” Howie replied with a shrug and left it at that.
“We worked on our opening set,” Nick elaborated. “We start with three uptempos in a row: ‘Larger Than Life,’ ‘Everyone,’ and a song off the new album, ‘Any Other Way.’ Lots of dancing.” He made a face, sticking out his tongue like a panting dog.
“Are you keeping the old choreography for ‘Larger Than Life’ or changing it up?” One half of me was just trying to make conversation to take their attention off me, but the other half was genuinely curious to hear how they were doing things without me.
I felt a wistful smile spread across my face. It had been almost two years since I’d last performed that song, but I still could have hopped out of bed and done the full routine right there in my hospital room, had it not been for my ruined spinal cord. The muscle memory was there. I just couldn’t move any of the right muscles.
“But we’ve got a boxing theme for our intro, and we’re doing this dope mash-up with ‘Eye of the Tiger’...” Nick went on, describing the white robes they would be wearing and the kickboxing moves they had been working on.
Listening to him talk about the upcoming tour was harder for me than I thought it would be. Before my injury, I had felt at peace with my decision to leave the Backstreet Boys and spend more time with my family. Now I found myself wishing I could go back, knowing full well I couldn’t. The boys were my family, too, but the door they’d left open for me had been closed and locked forever. There was no coming back from this.
“...but man, I hate watching myself in the mirror. I look like a freaking giant compared to these three midgets,” Nick complained. “I miss having your height to balance me out.”
“I miss it, too,” I admitted. In another life, I would have been sweating alongside him as we danced for hours. But in this new life of mine, I could barely sit on the edge of the bed for five minutes without wanting to puke. I felt as weak and floppy as the poor baby bird I had tried and failed to rehabilitate. “I’d much rather be back on stage with y’all than stuck here. No offense, Phil.”
The physical therapist flashed me a sympathetic smile. “None taken, man. No one wants to be in the hospital.”
“Unless they have a medical fetish,” added Brian, bringing the conversation full circle.
Phil helped me lie back down in bed, which was a relief. As much as I wanted to get up, I found it a lot easier to breathe when I was flat on my back. It felt good to be grounded again, with my head resting on a pillow instead of floating in space.
The guys hung out for another hour, then headed home for the evening. My mom went with Brian, leaving me alone. A nursing assistant fed me my dinner. Not long afterwards, I took my evening meds, which included a blood thinner, a painkiller, and a sleeping pill, and watched TV until I fell asleep.
I woke up, as I always did, when the nurses came in to reposition me. As they rolled me onto my side, I saw the raven sitting on my bed rail. It was right beside me, so close I could have reached out and touched it if I’d had control of my hand. But neither nurse seemed to notice it, so I knew it wasn’t really there. “You’re not real,” I whispered, once they’d left and I was alone again. “Go away!”
The bird just stared at me with its beady, black eyes.
“Fine, whatever. Stay there if you want. I’m going back to sleep.” I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t get comfortable. My left arm was propped up too high on its pillow, making the bottom of my neck brace dig into my collarbone. If I could just lower my arm a little, I might be able to create more space between my chin and chest.
I shifted my shoulder, but that didn’t help - the rest of my arm remained motionless. What I really needed was my bicep, a muscle I had so far been unable to move. Concentrating hard, I tried to imagine my upper arm sliding backwards, further away from my chest.
At first, nothing happened. But then, I felt a faint twitch. My eyes flew open to see my hand shift on the pillow in front of me. The fingers weren’t moving, but my elbow was, dragging the bottom half of my arm with it. It took every ounce of energy I had left, but little by little, I was able to pull my arm into a more comfortable position.
“Yes!” I hissed under my breath, exhilarated by my own success. Moving my arm a few inches may have seemed like a small accomplishment, but it was huge for me. Dr. Bone had said I might get back the use of my arms, and here it was, the first sign of it happening. It filled me with a renewed sense of hope. I could only get better from here on out.
I wished there were someone else around to share my triumph with, but the only witness was a figment of my imagination. The raven was still watching me, its head cocked to one side with an expression of bright interest. It looked more cute than sinister now, and somehow, it had gotten significantly smaller. As it tilted back its head and trilled out a high-pitched call, I suddenly realized it wasn’t a raven at all, but a blackbird. A songbird.
Smiling, I sucked in a deep breath and sang back to it: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night… Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” My voice sounded soft and throaty. It didn’t have the rich tone I was used to hearing, but the notes were in tune. “All your life… you were only waiting for this moment to arrive.”
The blackbird ruffled its feathers as it turned its back to me. Then, suddenly, it took flight. I watched with envy as it soared over my head and disappeared into the dark night.
I never saw it again.
The next day, my nurse started weaning me off the sleeping pills so I wouldn’t become dependent on them before I was discharged to a rehabilitation center. I felt anxious without them, but at least the hallucinations stopped.
For the first time, I found myself looking forward to my transfer to another inpatient facility. My hospital room still felt like a prison cell, but rehab had come to represent freedom, for it was the place where I would get back my wings and learn to fly again.