Associated Press – Amanda J. Golde
Nick Carter is sitting on the floor in his apartment, his blonde hair is greasy from lack of showering. He kind of smells, but in a good way, I guess. Around him are spread thousands of pictures, taken from three different cameras. He looks like he’s sitting in an ocean of memories. It’s a good image for what is probably going on inside of him, I’m sure. I know I’m drowning in my own memories, and I have far fewer to sift than Nick does.
His hands move over the pictures, touching certain ones and closing his eyes. The memories they contain, I’m sure, are playing behind those eyelids, like movies. He’s trying to select it – the one picture that will sum it all up, the one that he’s going to give me to include with this article I am writing. But it has to be the perfect one, he says, studying the pictures carefully.
I already know which one it is. But he has not yet seen it.
You see, the perfect photo was given to me, hand selected by Brian Littrell himself. “This,” Brian had said, handing it to me when I asked him, “Is my something beautiful.”
We embarked, the three of us, a couple months ago now, on an incredible journey. Though I did not know it at the time, it was a time of growth, of change, of love, of pain, of laughter, and of tears.
In April, the Backstreet Boys were supposed to go on tour. You know this part of the story already, where they cancel the tour one day before they’re supposed to leave. What you didn’t know was that it was because Brian Littrell had been rushed to the hospital during the middle of the night. Nick only recently told me the story, about how Brian had been sharing a hotel room with Nick, and he suddenly awoke in a pool of sweat and coughing blood.
“It was the scariest moment of my entire life,” Nick confessed, his eyes far away from the room we were sitting in. “He was diagnosed within five hours of that moment, when I woke up and found him like that.”
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood, where your usually good-guy white blood cells become the bad guys and start killing you literally from the inside out. It’s a draining disease, but the treatment is even worse. Which is why, when Brian was diagnosed and given the option, he refused the treatment.
“We thought he was nuts,” said AJ McLean, “Why wouldn’t he want treatment, you know?”
“I was looking for quality,” Brian told me, “Not quantity.” As he explained to me once, he wanted his son, Baylee, to have good memories of him – memories of playing baseball and going fishing – rather than of hospital visits.
“Brian was an amazing father and husband,” Leighanne, Brian’s wife, told me, “Even in the last moments of his life. When he came home from the road trip, he did everything he could with Baylee. They spent so much time together. And as for me, well… Brian and I had never been happier.”
The road trip, which Brian had asked Nick to plan during his initial hospital stay, was designed to find the something beautiful for which Nick is searching the pictures that surround him. Nick’s imagination, partnered with no worry of cost, created an amazing trip, jam-packed with experiences and sights that none of us ever dreamt we would see. Or at least I hadn’t.
From sleeping in the depths of the Grand Canyon to white water rafting in Colorado, we experienced everything. We even skydived from 13,000 feet. Brian experienced life in new and intense ways during the time that he was allotted. “I want to die living,” Brian said, “Not live dying.”
And he certainly did that.
Not only that, but Brian did it with a finesse, a flair, that few people have. His faith in God was so incredibly strong that he never once complained about his illness. “My illness is a blessing,” he confided, just before taking the stage at Tucker Field last week. “It has allowed me to see what life is really about. It’s about jumping out of the plane…”
One thing that you never would’ve heard Brian say, over the entire past four and a half months of his life, was the word good-bye. “It’s not really good-bye,” he said every time that he needed to say it, “It’s see you later, or gotta go.”
Even his final trip to the stage was capped by the trademark words.
“He told me that he wasn’t saying good-bye just before he died,” Leighanne said, her eyes brimming with tears, “And I suppose a part of me knew then, and just didn’t want to believe. He was so peaceful about it… so calm. It was beautiful.”
Brian died on the way home from Tucker Field, with his wife and son by his side, though neither were aware of his passing until they’d safely arrived in the driveway. “It was so like Brian,” Leighanne said, “To sneak off while I wasn’t looking to make it easier. He’d said what he had to, and then he flew away.”
Now, Nick and I are back in Los Angeles. Nick is struggling with the loss, and I’ve heard him try several times to call Brian on his cell phone. But of course, all he gets is the voicemail outgoing message. But even that, Nick says, is enough, because he can at least hear his voice again.
The pictures are beautiful, all of them. There’s some cacti over by Nick’s knee, and one of a baby raccoon he thought as a mountain lion in his bed beside that. There’s one of Nick smiling on the raft as we were battling the white water, my head is on Nick’s lap as I laugh from nerves. There’s one of Nick and I suspended upside down over a gorge when we went bungee jumping, and one of Brian, Nick and I under the water at the Tennessee Aquarium, surrounded by little red and blue fish.
Nick’s got a few semi-finalists. A sun set over the mouth of the Grand Canyon, with the pink, orange and purple glow. Another is of the view from the lodge we stayed in in Boulder, looking out across the tall aspen pines to the Rocky Mountains. My favorite of the ones Nick has selected, though, is of Brian and I free-falling from the sky, hand in hand, the wind blowing out faces and arms upwards. He’s also got a couple of the hot air balloon we rode in New Mexico, and one of the Littrell house in Lexington, Kentucky in the fading sunlight.
As beautiful as all these pictures are, though, they aren’t what Brian selected as his something beautiful.
The picture is simple enough. I actually was the one who took it. I was sitting in the back of the bus, and the two boys were sitting in the front. It was during our drive from Boulder to Omaha, before we switched to the Hummer. Brian was having problems driving the bus, and he was stripping the gears. Nick was trying to tell him how to do it. The picture is simply the backs of their heads as they were laughing and talking, the road stretching ahead, a solid double yellow line as far as the eye can see.
“It’s not what the picture is,” Brian had said, staring at it, with tears streaming down his face. “It’s what it represents. That was my something beautiful.”
In a minute, I’m going to get up and go give this picture to Nick, and tell him what Brian told me. Brian said that when I show it to him, Nick is going to laugh, toss back his head, probably shed some tears, and keep the picture forever.
And, as usual, Brian was absolutely right.