For the first few days, I was in a fog. I drifted in and out of consciousness, with no sense of time or place. The fog would lift for a few moments at a time, then descend on me again. I caught glimpses of familiar faces, but couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to focus on their features. I heard voices I recognized, but could hardly comprehend what they were saying. My thoughts were clouded by high doses of pain medication, steroids, and sedatives, which kept me in a state of calm confusion. I didn’t know what was real anymore.
I had vivid dreams of dancing with my wife. The ballroom was lit with bright lights, and Kristin looked beautiful in a long, white dress, like she’d worn at our wedding. I would spin her around and around in circles before dipping her backwards over my arm, and she would laugh and beam up at me, her brown eyes twinkling. Then, without warning, the music would stop, and the floor beneath my feet would give way, and I would fall down, down into a deep dark hole. I never felt my body hit the ground, but with a start, I would wake to find myself lying flat on my back, unable to breathe, as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I would look up and see the bright lights high above my head, but the face hovering over me didn’t belong to my wife. Where’s Kristin? I would wonder, but I couldn’t form the words to ask. Kristin’s dead, a voice in the back of my head would answer, but I didn’t believe it. Kristin couldn’t be dead. Before I could figure out the truth, the lights would fade as clouds of dense fog closed in on me again.
This kept recurring until the fog finally dissipated and didn’t come back. I woke with a clear head and found myself in a hospital bed, surrounded by machines that blipped and hissed. At first, I felt fearful, until I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey there, sleepyhead.” I tried to turn my head toward the sound, but there was still a brace around my neck that made it impossible to move. Shifting my eyes instead, I saw Brian sitting beside my bed. He scooted his chair closer and leaned forward so I could see him better. “Don’t try to talk,” he added, as I opened my mouth to say something back to him. “You still have a tube down your throat to help you breathe.”
That brought it all back to me: the accident, the ambulance ride, the emergency room, and the ICU. I remembered Brian telling me to hang in there just before the doctor put in the breathing tube, promising to take care of Mason. I remembered my other Backstreet brothers being there, too, and Nick wiping the tears from my face because I couldn’t raise my arms. I remembered saying goodbye to Kristin as she lay lifeless on a gurney parked right next to mine, and I knew then that it was true: my wife was dead. The realization brought fresh tears to my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Brian asked anxiously, apparently noticing the tears. “Are you in pain? Blink once for yes, twice for no.”
Was I in pain? What a loaded question that was. Physically, no. The breathing tube was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. My neck felt stiff, but most of my body was still numb. Mentally, though, I was in agony. All I wanted was to go home, hug my son, and kiss my wife, but I couldn’t do any of that. I would never be able to kiss Kristin again. And if my condition didn’t improve, I might never be able to give Mason another hug either. I had to get better for my baby boy.
“Kev?” Leaning over the railing on the side of my bed, Brian looked me in the eye. “Can you hear me?”
I blinked, then offered a shrug. It was such a subtle gesture, I didn’t give it a second thought, but Brian gasped.
“He moved his arms! Did you see that, Bone?”
AJ suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision. He was standing on the other side of the bed, smiling down at me. “I saw! Way to go, Kevy Kev. That was great!”
I felt absurdly like an infant lying in a crib. Was this what it was like for Mason whenever Kristin and I stood by the side of his crib and watched him, cooing over every cute little thing he did? He usually smiled up at us, burbling back in his baby talk, but it just made me self-conscious.
“This must mean the surgery worked! He’s getting some function back,” Brian said happily.
Surgery? I wondered, frowning. When did I have surgery?
Brian must have seen the look of confusion on my face because he explained, “They operated on your spine three days ago to fuse the broken vertebrae back together and relieve the pressure on your spinal cord. The surgery went well, but we’ve been waiting for you to wake up to see if it made any difference. You’ve been pretty out of it.”
“Thank god for good drugs, huh?” added AJ with a snicker.
Thank god, I agreed, mouthing the words around the breathing tube. I didn’t feel any different than I had before, but I was glad they had knocked me out for a while. A part of me wished they would put me back under so I wouldn’t have to feel the pain of losing Kristin again. I would rather dance with her in my dreams forever than wake up to the world without her.
“Can you feel this, cous?” Brian was asking me. “Can you squeeze my hand?”
I couldn’t feel anything, but I tried to make a fist, imagining my fingers curling around his, the muscles contracting. By the crestfallen expression on Brian’s face, I could tell nothing was happening.
“That’s okay. I’m sure it’ll come with time,” he said, flashing a quick smile.
I didn’t feel sure of anything. It was frustrating to wake up after half a week in the hospital and not know what was happening. I had so many questions, but no way to ask them. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t write or sign. I couldn’t even nod or shake my head. I could only communicate by blinking my eyes, making faces, and mouthing words. It’s a good thing I have such expressive eyebrows, because the guys weren’t very good lip-readers.
Thankfully, Brian, AJ, and the steady stream of visitors who followed them helped put together the pieces of the puzzle, painting a clearer picture of the past few days for me. I found out that my mom was staying with Brian, while Leighanne had flown back to Georgia to take care of Baylee. Kristin’s parents were living temporarily at our house while they handled her funeral arrangements. My in-laws were also taking care of Mason, with help from Howie and Leigh.
“We’re getting some good practice at being parents,” Howie said when he came in to see me. “Mason misses you, but he’s doing fine. Don’t worry about him. Just focus on getting back on your feet.”
I wanted to joke about being worried Howie would screw up my kid, but I couldn’t form the words. In reality, I wasn’t worried about that at all. Out of all the boys, Howie had always been the most responsible. Other than Brian, he was the only one I would want watching my six-month-old. Now if it had been Nick or AJ assigned to babysitting duty, then I really would have had a reason to worry. But I trusted Howie.
What I worried most about was how Mason and I were going to manage in the future, once I got out of the hospital and my friends and family went home. I was now a single father - a single father who couldn’t do a single thing for himself, let alone take care of a baby. No one would tell me whether my paralysis was permanent, and of course, I couldn’t ask.
In the ICU, I had a team of nurses tending to my every need. They came into my room around the clock, carefully turning my body every couple of hours to prevent pressure sores from forming, feeding me through a thin tube inserted into my nose that went straight into my stomach, suctioning the mucus out of my lungs so I could breathe better, emptying the catheter bag that collected my urine, bathing and changing me like I was a baby. I hadn’t been so helpless since I was Mason’s age. Hell, even my six-month-old could move around and communicate better than me. I was more like a baby doll, able to blink and wet itself, but not much else.
It was bad enough not being able to move, but not being able to talk was even worse. At one point, I had a terrible itch on the side of my nose; it was driving me nuts, but despite my best effort, I couldn’t bring my hand up to my face to scratch it. “Nose itches,” I tried mouthing to Nick and Howie, who were in my room at the time, but neither of them knew what I was saying.
Nick came the closest. “No stitches?” he guessed. “Nah, dawg, I don’t think they had to use any stitches for the cut on your head. Not sure about your neck; I dunno what it looks like under that brace you’re wearing. I bet you’ll have some cool scars though.”
I wrinkled my nose, my skin crawling.
Nick must have thought I was just making a face because he laughed and added, “Aw, c’mon, scars just make you look like more of a badass. But if you don’t like it, you can always cover it up with a sweet neck tattoo.”
I rolled my eyes at that.
“What, you don’t wanna look like AJ?” Howie joked, which got Nick going again as I suffered in silence.
Eventually, one of the nurses brought in a communication board, which had a series of frequently-used words and phrases with little pictures, as well as a pain scale with the numbers one to ten and an alphabet. The nurse would read through the words or letters in order, and I would blink when she got to the one I wanted. It was a painstakingly slow process, but it worked. At least now I had a reliable way to make my needs known.
The first message I spelled out using the letter board was, “Breathing tube out?” I assumed the nurse would understand this to mean that I wanted it out, or at least wanted to know when it could be taken out. To my relief, she nodded and said, “Dr. Bone will come by to talk to you when she gets out of the operating room.”
The blonde surgeon turned up later that day. I remembered meeting her briefly before she had put the breathing tube in. I hoped she was about to take it out. Instead, she told me I would have to be put through a series of breathing trials to prove I could breathe well enough on my own before I could be weaned off the ventilator, which would take at least two more days. If I didn't pass the test, I would probably need a tracheostomy. The thought of breathing through a tube hanging out of a hole in my neck terrified me. I was determined to do whatever it took to avoid that.
She brought in a respiratory therapist named Christopher, who explained that he would be turning down the pressure setting on the ventilator for a few minutes every other hour so he could monitor my ability to breathe without the machine pushing oxygen into my lungs. Then he would put me back on full ventilator support to let me rest until the next trial, gradually increasing the time I could remain off it until it was clear I didn’t need it anymore.
Throughout the rest of that day and the next, I worked with the respiratory therapist as my family and friends continued to rotate in and out of the room. They kept me company, carrying on mostly one-sided conversations. Howie told me cute stories about Mason. Brian showed me a video Leighanne and Baylee had made to send me their love. AJ talked about the TV shows he’d been watching that he thought I would like too, and Nick brought me a brand new iPod filled with my favorite music. They helped pass the time and take my mind off the pain and discomfort I felt. They dried the tears I couldn’t wipe away myself and scratched the itches I couldn’t reach. I appreciated them being there more than I could express, but I hoped they knew how much their visits meant to me.
It was a lot lonelier after visiting hours ended and they all left for the evening. I lay awake late into the night, trying to relax and let the ventilator breathe for me while I listened to the playlist Nick had made. It contained mostly upbeat music, an eclectic mix of everything from classic rock and old-school rap to modern pop hits. It felt weird not to be able to bob my head or tap my fingers and toes to the beat.
As “California Love” by 2Pac and Dr. Dre pounded against my eardrums, I closed my eyes and imagined myself driving up the coastline in my convertible with the top down and the radio turned all the way up, one hand on the wheel and the other on my wife’s bare thigh. Kristin would be riding next to me in the passenger seat, laughing as the ocean breeze blew back her long, blonde hair. That was the way I wanted to remember her - as the vibrant, beautiful woman I had loved for the last sixteen years, not the lifeless shell I’d said goodbye to in the emergency room.
Almost as if on cue, the rap song came to an end and was replaced by something softer and slower, a seventies folk song I recognized right away. “People smile and tell me I’m the lucky one… and we’ve only just begun. Think I’m gonna have a son.” Tears sprang to my eyes as I listened to the familiar lyrics. “He will be like she and me, as free as a dove… conceived in love. The sun is gonna shine above.” Nick must have known how much I liked “Danny’s Song.” I had grown up listening to it with my parents, who had played the record often when I was a kid. It still reminded me of my dad and the loving relationship he’d had with my mom, but it wasn’t until I was married and about to become a father myself that I fully understood why he had connected so deeply with that song. “And even though we ain’t got money… I’m so in love with you, honey, and everything will bring a chain of love.” These days, it made me think more of my own little family. I had sung this song to Kristin while she was pregnant with Mason, my head resting on her round belly so our baby could hear his daddy’s voice. “And in the morning when I rise, you bring a tear of joy to my eye and tell me everything… is gonna be all right.”
The tears spilled over as my heart ached for the life I’d had with Kristin, a life I was never going to get back. Nothing was going to be all right now that she was gone. I didn’t see how I would ever be able to move on without her. Hell, I couldn’t even move.
I lay there with tears trickling down the sides of my face for I don’t know how long before I finally cried myself to sleep, something I hadn’t done since my dad died. Once again, I dreamed of dancing with Kristin, until the nurses came in to turn me as they did every two hours. It was a rude awakening to be jolted out of a deep sleep and find my broken body being rolled over in bed by four hands that did not belong to my wife. As the nurses bustled around me, making sure my tubes were all still in place and tucking pillows beneath different parts of my body to keep it in the new position, I closed my eyes and willed my brain to take me back to my dream, where Kristin was alive and I was undamaged. I wished I could stay there forever and never wake up.