When Holden was diagnosed with AIDS, my whole world fell apart. In a matter of days, the decisions I’d made destroyed everything that mattered to me: my family, my best friend, my health, my career. It had taken me months to rebuild, but after almost a full year, I finally felt like my life was back together. I had managed to maintain my friendship with Leigh and make sure Holden and James were well taken care of. I had not only repaired my relationship with Nick, but redefined it. I had survived a suicide attempt, recovered from my transplant, and completed a successful tour with the Boys. Then my health had started to fail, and suddenly, my carefully reconstructed life seemed on the verge of collapse again.
All it took were a few words to wobble the already-precarious Jenga tower again. Hearing the doctor’s diagnosis was like watching that first wooden block fall. Pneumocystis pneumonia. I knew what that meant for me. It was an “AIDS-defining illness.”
“Technically speaking, yes, HIV-positive patients who present with PCP are considered to have AIDS,” said Dr. Scott, “but your case is complicated by the fact that you’ve also had an organ transplant and recently been treated for rejection. High-dose steroids also suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to opportunistic infections. We don’t know if the drop in your CD4 count was caused by the virus or the steroids. We don’t know if the pneumonia is an HIV-related infection or a transplant-related one. We don’t even know for sure that that’s what this infection is.” She suddenly leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye. “For now, consider it a preliminary diagnosis, and don’t worry about whether or not it’s ‘AIDS-defining.’ That’s just a label we doctors like to use to make sure we’re using the same criteria to diagnose patients,” she added, offering me a reassuring smile.
That made me feel a little bit better about my situation. I took a deep breath, stifled a cough, and said, “Okay... so what happens now?”
“For now, we’re going to presume that you do have PCP and treat you accordingly. That means you’ll be admitted and put on IV antibiotics. Your cultures should confirm the diagnosis in a few days. Do you have any questions?”
I shook my head. I dreaded the thought of another hospitalization, especially so soon after the week I’d spent in Seattle, but I knew it was necessary. Without the supplemental oxygen, I could barely breathe, and without the antibiotics, I would only get worse before I got better.
“If you think of any, don’t hesitate to ask,” said Dr. Scott. “In the meantime, someone should be here soon to start your admission paperwork. I’ll check in on you later.”
“Good luck, Mr. Dorough,” added Dr. Robinson, shaking my hand before she and Dr. Scott left the room.
Once we were alone, I looked over at Nick, who had been unnaturally quiet through the whole conversation. He was hunched in his chair with his head down, running his hand over his hair. It was a nervous habit that I had always found sexy, like licking his lips, but now it made me feel sick to my stomach to see him struggling to hold himself together because of me.
I wanted to get up and go over to him, give him a hug, and tell him it was going to be okay, but the tubes and wires that were attached to me made it hard to move around much. I only got as far as swinging my legs over the side of the bed before the heart monitor started beeping faster, making Nick look up.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, jumping to his feet to help me. “You need to take a shit or something?”
I shook my head. “Took care of that before our swim,” I said, smirking at him. That made him blush. I patted a spot beside me on the bed. “Come sit with me for a sec.” The bed creaked beneath our weight as Nick perched awkwardly on the edge. Our ill-fated tryst in the pool felt like it had taken place an eternity ago, but I could still smell the chlorine coming off his skin. “You okay?” I asked, putting my arm around him.
He snorted. “You’ve been coughing up blood, you can barely breathe, and you’re asking me if I’m okay?”
I smiled. “I know this is scary, but Nick, I’m gonna be okay too,” I assured him. “If my baby boy can beat this, then so can I. Even if I do have AIDS, it’s not a death sentence anymore. Holden’s been living with it for a year, and he’s fine. You saw how well he was doing this summer; you would never even know he was sick. So I don’t want you to worry about me, okay? I’ll get through this like I have everything else.”
Nick nodded. “Sure you will,” he said shakily. “You’re the Indestructible Howie D, remember?”
“That’s right, and don’t you ever forget it,” I replied, winking at him. He smiled, and for a second, I felt better. We both just had to stay positive, I decided.
But the second passed, and Nick’s smile faded. He let out a heavy sigh, his shoulders slumping again. “Dude... Howie, this sucks.”
I took a deep breath through my nose and let it out slowly, trying not to cough. “I know.”
“It’s not fair,” Nick went on, shaking his head. “I find out I’m undetectable, and you get diagnosed with AIDS on the same fucking day? How does that even happen?”
When he put it like that, it did seem pretty unfair. It was hard to believe it had only been a few hours since we’d sat in his doctor’s office, our roles reversed. And then I realized: Nick felt guilty - guilty for getting such good news when mine was so bad.
“I dunno... but Nick, you know I’m not, like, jealous or angry about that, right?” I asked, looking over at him.
He shrugged. “Maybe you should be.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, frowning.
“I’m just saying...” Nick sighed and shook his head. “You don’t deserve this, Howie. You’ve done everything right, everything you’re supposed to do. You take your meds on time, you don’t drink, you work out, you eat healthy... This shouldn’t be happening to you. So yeah, maybe you should be angry.”
I could hear the bitterness in his voice, but I knew there was more than just guilt or anger behind it. There was also fear. He was afraid... not just of what was happening to me now, but of what might happen to him in the future. Even if he did everything “right” himself, his own health would decline someday. That was just the nature of the disease.
“But I didn’t do everything right,” I replied softly. “I messed up, too; I made mistakes. Did you forget how I almost drank myself to death on New Year’s Eve? How I overdosed on my meds and made my liver fail? I’m not saying I deserve it, but Nick, I did this to myself.”
He just shook his head again.
“I wish I wasn’t sick,” I went on, “but it makes me feel better to know you’re doing so well.” I gave his shoulders a squeeze. “I couldn’t be happier for you, so don’t you dare feel bad about it.”
“Thanks,” he said flatly. Then, cracking a smile, he added, “I guess it could always be worse. At least you don’t have Ebola.”
The seemingly random comment struck me as funny. “Well, yes, at least there’s that,” I replied, chuckling. “Way to look on the bright side there, Nicky.”
But Nick sounded serious when he said, “When that doctor said she was an infectious disease specialist, you wouldn’t believe what was going through my head.”
“Well, HIV is... Wait, you really thought it might be Ebola?” I burst out laughing, which made me start coughing. “God, I love you,” I said hoarsely, resting my head on his shoulder. I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing, sucking fresh oxygen from the cannula in my nose until my lungs cleared.
I felt Nick’s hand stroke the side of my face and heard him whisper, “I love you, too.”
My eyes flew open in surprise as I lifted my head to look at him. They were the words I’d been waiting months to hear out of him, but at that moment, they didn’t make me any happier. “You don’t have to do that,” I said, as Nick’s hand dropped back down into his lap. “Don’t treat me like I’m dying.”
“Who said anything about dying?” he asked, sounding genuinely confused. “All I said was I love you. Isn’t that what you want?”
I smiled at him sadly. “If you really do love me, I want you to say it when I get out of here. Take me on a date and tell me you love me then, and maybe I’ll believe you. Deal?”
Smiling back, Nick nodded. “Deal.”***
It didn’t seem like we would be going on that date any time soon. Over the next few days, my symptoms got worse instead of better, despite the strong antibiotics I’d been on since my admission.
On my fourth day in the hospital, I woke up with a headache and a tight, heavy feeling in my chest. It was like there was a weight sitting on it, making it hard to breathe. When Dr. Scott came to see me on her morning rounds, she took one look at the monitor that was mounted over my bed and reached for her stethoscope. As she pressed the cold metal piece to my chest and listened to my lungs, I saw her frown.
“I don’t like what I’m hearing,” she said, shaking her head. “We should be seeing signs of improvement by now, but you still have crackles in both lungs, and your sats are low even with an increase in the flow of supplemental oxygen you’re receiving.”
“So what does that mean?” I asked.
“For some reason, the treatment doesn’t seem to be working. Either you’ve got a drug-resistant strain of pneumocystis, or it’s something else entirely. We’re still waiting on your initial blood and sputum cultures to come back from the lab, but in the meantime, I’d like to run some more tests.”
I spent the rest of the morning being poked and prodded by various members of the hospital staff. They drew more blood, sent me for a CT scan and echocardiogram, and did a bronchoscopy to collect samples from my lungs. By the time they brought me back to my room after the last procedure, I was feeling pretty bad. I hadn’t been allowed to eat breakfast before the bronchoscopy, and afterwards, I wasn’t hungry. My throat hurt, my body ached, and the sedative they’d given me had made me groggy. All I wanted to do was sleep.
It wasn’t a surprise to find Nick waiting in my room when I got back. He had dutifully shown up at the hospital every day around ten a.m., when visiting hours started, and stayed there until they ended at nine p.m. As soon as he saw me being wheeled in on a gurney, he jumped up out of his chair. “Hey, there you are!” he said, his voice slightly higher-pitched than normal. “Dude, I was starting to get worried.”
“Didn’t anyone tell you where I was?” I grunted with discomfort as the orderly helped me slide off the gurney and onto my bed.
“Well, the nurse said you were having tests done, but she wasn’t sure how long they’d take. What’s going on?” Nick asked, looking me over anxiously. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, inhaling a few breaths of oxygen through the cannula in my nose before I filled him in. It was pretty pathetic that the mere effort of moving my body back into bed had made me short of breath. No wonder Nick’s forehead was creased with concern the whole time I was talking, hoarse-voiced and breathing hard. I must have sounded pretty bad.
“How do you feel now?” he asked me, after I’d finished describing the bronchoscopy.
“Honestly? Tired,” I replied. “I just wanna take a nap.”
“Take a nap then,” Nick said. “Do you want me to leave?”
“Doesn’t matter to me. Don’t feel like you have to sit there and watch me sleep all day, but I won’t mind if you stay. We both know I can sleep through anything.”
Nick smiled. “That’s so true.”
So Nick stayed, and I slept. I dozed off while he was watching TV and didn’t even notice when Kevin and AJ came by to visit in the afternoon. By that evening, I felt a little better - more awake, anyway - but my breathing hadn’t improved at all. If anything, it had gotten worse.
The next time my nurse, Jodi, came in to check my vitals, she was concerned enough to call Dr. Scott in to examine me. The doctor listened to my lungs with her stethoscope again and looked at the latest set of vitals Jodi had noted on my chart. Then she pulled a chair up alongside my bed, where Nick was sitting, and sat down next to him. Looking at me seriously, she said, “Your sats have dropped to a dangerous level, Mr. Dorough.”
“You can call me Howie,” I said hoarsely. I could hear myself wheezing with every breath I took. “So how bad are they?”
“You’re already hypoxic, which means your tissues aren’t getting an adequate supply of oxygen. If your oxygen saturation level gets any lower, you’ll be at risk of organ damage,” Dr. Scott explained. “We’ve reached a point where you may have some hard decisions to make, Howie.”
My sore throat suddenly felt very dry. I swallowed with difficulty, as I waited for her to elaborate.
“The supplemental oxygen you’ve been getting through your nasal cannula isn’t enough at this point. We can try a higher concentration of oxygen through a different device called a BiPAP machine, but if that doesn’t work, we would have to put a breathing tube down your throat. Intubation is a last resort for patients with suppressed immune systems, since it puts them at increased risk of infection, but if your breathing gets worse, it may be our only option. I’m not trying to scare you, but I do want to prepare you for that possibility. Do you understand what I’ve told you so far?”
I nodded. Then I glanced at Nick. He had his head down, staring determinedly at his lap. That was what Nick tended to do in tough situations, just sort of shut down.
“Your condition is serious enough that we’re going to move you to the Intensive Care Unit, where they have more specialized equipment and can monitor you around the clock,” Dr. Scott continued. “My hope is that you won’t have to stay there long, but in case there are any complications, I want you to consider what your wishes are should your condition worsen to the point where you were incapable of making medical decisions for yourself. Do you have an advance directive? A living will?”
My breath caught in my throat as I realized what she was asking me. I remembered having a similar conversation after my suicide attempt, when I was in the ICU with a failing liver. Until Nick had talked me into the transplant, I hadn’t wanted any “heroic measures” to save my life, but I’d gotten too sick too quickly to formally declare my wishes on any kind of legal document. “No,” I whispered.
Dr. Scott nodded. “Then I highly recommend you choose a power of attorney - someone you trust to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. If we have to intubate you, you’ll be sedated and unable to speak, so you’ll need someone who knows your wishes and can speak for you. It’s a fairly simple process to create one; I can have a member of our legal team bring you the paperwork to fill out if you’d like.”
“Okay,” I agreed. Then a question occurred to me. “Does it have to be a family member? Because my wife and I are divorced... and the rest of my family live in Florida.”
“No,” said Dr. Scott, shaking her head. “It can be a close friend, a significant other, or anyone you want to take on that responsibility.”
Instinctively, I looked at Nick at the same time he looked up. He had been silent the whole time, but now he spoke. “I’m his partner,” he said quietly. “I can do it - if Howie trusts me to.” Glancing my way, he gave me a crooked smile.
There were so many jokes I could have made about counting on Nick Carter to make medical decisions for me, but I couldn’t find the words. I just stared at his face for a few seconds, my heart thumping heavily in my chest, smiling in spite of my discomfort. It was the first time he had introduced himself as anything other than my “friend,” and in that moment, it meant the world to me.
Partner. It really was the most appropriate word for what Nick and I were to each other. We’d known each other for twenty-two years. In that time, we had worked together, played together, travelled together, made beautiful music together. We’d shared moments of great happiness... and moments of horrible grief. We’d seen each other through first loves and bad breakups, sold-out tours and cancelled shows. We’d supported each other’s side projects, solo tours, and self-improvement efforts. We had helped each other through lawsuits and losses, arrests and illnesses. We’d been there for each other during good times, bad times, and everything in between. We were friends, brothers, bandmates, and lovers. We were partners - not just in business, but in life.
Looking at Nick, I finally found my voice. “Of course,” I replied, reaching out my hand to him. He took it, and I gave his hand a squeeze. “Thanks, Nicky.”
“No problem, Howie,” he said softly. Then he let out a nervous laugh. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t get to the point where I actually have to make any decisions for you. We both know I’ve made some pretty bad ones before.”
Leave it to Nick to make the self-deprecating jokes. I smiled and shook my head. “I’m not worried about that. That was the old Nick. You’re not that person anymore. I would trust the new Nick with my life.”
Nick smiled back, his eyes bright with tears.
“Actually... I am trusting you with my life,” I added with a wink, “so you better not screw this up.”***
I’d spent eight days in the ICU when my liver was failing, so I knew what to expect, but that didn’t make it any easier to go back.
ICU was a scary place with no privacy and so much noisy, cumbersome equipment, it was nearly impossible to get a good night’s sleep there. The nurses woke me up every two hours to check on me, and the monitors and my new BiPAP mask made it hard to fall asleep again. If I tried to toss and turn, the wires would get in the way, and the mask was so big and bulky, I could only lie on my back with it on. It was loud, too. All night, I had to listen to the hiss of oxygen flowing through the hose and filling my lungs. It seemed to magnify the sound of my breathing.
“Dude, you sound like Darth Vader with that thing on,” said Nick, as he shifted in the recliner next to my bed, trying to get comfortable. The one nice thing about ICU was that they allowed all-night visitors. It wasn’t so nice for Nick, though, who had insisted on staying and was probably regretting it now.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “You should just go home, Nick. At least then maybe one of us could get some sleep.”
“Nah, I’m fine,” he muttered, flopping onto his side. He buried his head in the pillow a nurse had brought him, trying to block out the sounds. I felt bad for making him feel like he had to stay. It hadn’t been my idea, but I think our conversation about the advance directive had freaked him out. He was afraid to leave.
With his help, I’d filled out the necessary paperwork to make Nick my power of attorney. Now all we needed were two witnesses who weren’t hospital staff to sign it with us. “We can get Kevin and AJ to come do it in the morning,” Nick had said. “I think we should call Brian, too.”
I hated to bother Brian when he was back in Georgia, but I knew Nick was right. Brian would want to know what was going on. So I had Nick give him a call while I texted my family to fill them in. It was too hard for me to talk and be heard over the phone; besides, I didn’t want my mother to hear how bad I sounded. It would only worry her more.
I left Leigh out of it, but I thought about her as I lay in bed that night, listening to the steady sound of my own breathing and not sleeping. The whole situation reminded me of the sleepless nights she and I had spent worrying about Holden while he was in intensive care. It had been almost exactly a year since then. Now I was the one in ICU, fighting the same infection. The fact that Holden had recovered from it gave me hope.
By morning, my oxygen levels looked better. The BiPAP machine made it easier to breathe by pushing pressurized air into my lungs every time I inhaled, so I didn’t have to work as hard. I was feeling okay when Kevin and AJ came to visit.
“You sure about this, Howie?” Kevin asked, when I showed them the advance directive I had drafted the night before. “You want Nick to be in charge of making medical decisions for you? This Nick? Nick Carter?”
“Shut up,” said Nick, who was sitting right there next to my bed. He rolled his eyes as I laughed. “Howie said he trusts me with his life - right, Howie?”
“Well, that’s what this document says, too, which is why I’m asking him: are you sure?”
I knew Kevin was only kidding, but Nick seemed annoyed. “What the fuck, Kevin? Why are you acting like I’m an idiot?” he exploded. “I can follow his fucking directions, you know; they’re right there in the fucking document we want you to sign!"
“Watch your mouth,” Kevin snapped back at him. “We’re in a hospital. You can’t curse like that here.”
“Says who?” Nick retorted, sounding like a child. He suddenly reminded me of James when he would get overly tired and start lashing out at people.
“Actually, I think Kevin’s saying Howie is an idiot,” AJ put in, snickering. “Did the lack of oxygen give you brain damage, D? You don’t really want Prick here deciding whether or not to pull the plug, do you?”
“As long as he waits till I’m brain dead,” I replied, trying to play along. But it was hard to make jokes about life support when I was lying there with a breathing mask strapped to my face, one step away from being on a ventilator. Kevin and AJ were just trying to lighten the mood and make me laugh, but they had no idea how bad things had been the night before. In spite of giving Nick such a hard time, they agreed to be our witnesses so Nick and I could sign the advance directive.
Brian seemed to be taking my situation more seriously than the other two, or maybe Nick had just told him more details when they’d talked on the phone the night before. He surprised me by showing up later that day, my fifth in the hospital.
“Hey, the gang’s all together!” he announced, as he walked in with my nurse, Charlene. “How’s it goin’, man?” he asked, gripping my hand.
I smiled, feeling self-conscious with the mask on. “I’m okay,” I said.
But I wasn’t okay. “Your blood pressure and oxygen sats are a little low,” Charlene observed, looking at my monitor. She listened to my lungs with her stethoscope and shook her head. “I’m going to get the doctor. I’ll be right back.”
She left and returned a few minutes later with the resident on call. “I’m Dr. Mikael,” the young doctor introduced herself. “How are you doing, Mr. Dorough? Any pain?”
“My chest hurts,” I admitted. There had been a dull ache in my chest all along, but the pain was getting sharper, radiating to my shoulder. When I realized this, I started to panic. I heard the monitor beep faster, as my heart began to race. “Am I having a heart attack?”
The doctor didn’t answer right away. She listened intently to my chest, moving her stethoscope around to different places. “I don’t think it’s a heart attack,” she said finally, “but I am hearing some decreased breath sounds.” She turned to the nurse. “Charlene, let’s get an AGB and order a portable chest X-ray.” Then she looked at me again. “Part of your lung may have collapsed, Mr. Dorough. We’re going to need to take you off BiPAP and put a breathing tube down your throat.”
“I won’t be able to talk with the tube in, right?” I asked, wheezing.
“No, you won’t.”
“Then can you wait a few minutes so I can call my family first? Please?” Despite the pain in my chest and my difficulty breathing, I didn’t want to be intubated without talking to them one last time... just in case.
Dr. Mikael hesitated, then nodded. “Okay, but only for a few minutes. Charlene’s going to go ahead and get a blood sample from the artery in your wrist so we can measure your blood gases, and I’ll be back in just a little bit.”
“Thank you,” I said gratefully. Then I looked at the guys. “Will one of you call Leigh?”
“I’m on it,” Kevin volunteered, standing up to pull his phone out of his back pocket. He turned around as he put the phone to his ear, walking a few steps away from my bed.
At the same time, the nurse sat down next to it and picked up my right arm. She pressed her gloved fingers against the inside of my wrist, feeling for a pulse. “Make a fist for me, please,” she instructed. “Good, now open it. Great.”
In the background, I could hear Kevin talking quietly to Leigh in his usual, calm manner. Of all the guys, I was glad he was the one who’d offered to call her. Nick, Brian, and AJ were all looking a little freaked out as they stood around my bed, watching Charlene draw my blood.
“You’re gonna feel a little poke here,” she said. I winced as the needle went in. “Doing good, Howie. Almost done.” Finally, she slid the needle out and held up a small syringe full of my blood, flicking it with her middle finger to get rid of the air bubbles. Then she pressed a piece of gauze to my wrist and held it there, while another nurse came to collect the sample. “I’m gonna put some pressure on this for five minutes or so, until the bleeding stops,” said Charlene. “Just lie back and try to relax.”
I nodded, but it was impossible to relax when it was getting harder and harder to breathe. My heart was pounding, the pain in my chest increasing every time I inhaled, and in the back of my mind lurked the possibility that this might be the last time I was able to talk to the people I loved.
“Kev, can I talk to her?” I called. But the BiPAP machine was so loud and my voice so weak, he couldn’t hear me. Brian went and got the phone for me. I fumbled with it for a few seconds, trying not to pull at the IV in the back of my hand or knock the pulse ox monitor off my finger, until Brian noticed my lack of free hands and took pity on me.
“Here,” he said, holding it up to my ear himself.
“Howie?” I heard Leigh ask.
“Hey,” I croaked, struggling to be heard above the hiss of the BiPAP. “I’m here.”
“Hi, honey.” Her voice cracked. “Kevin said you’re not doing so hot.”
“I’ll be okay... once they get me breathing better.” I took a breath, letting the machine inflate my lungs. “I just wanted to tell you...” I almost said “I love you,” but thought better of it. “I just wanted to tell you what was going on.”
“Thanks for filling me in. Have the guys keep me posted while you’re out of commission, okay?
“Okay.” I took another breath, in and out. “Can I talk to the boys?”
There was a moment’s pause before Leigh said, “Of course. Hang on a second.” I could hear her whispering in the background as I waited.
Brian, still holding the phone, gave me a questioning look. “She’s getting them,” I said. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on breathing.
Almost a full minute passed before I heard a familiar little voice say, “Daddy?”
My eyes popped open, and I smiled, in spite of the pain. “Hey, James!” I tried to make my voice sound bright and energetic, so he wouldn’t be scared. “It’s good to hear your voice, buddy.”
Unexpected tears sprang to my eyes as James said my name. “You’re starting to sound so grown up, James. I can’t believe what a big boy you are,” I said. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Hey, guess what?”
“What, chicken butt?” I replied.
He giggled. “Guess what, turkey butt? I made you something at school.”
Kindergarten. My oldest son was in kindergarten. It made me sad to think of all the milestones I was missing, being so far away from Holden and him. “You did? I can’t wait to see it.”
“When?” he wanted to know.
“I’m not sure, buddy,” I had to tell him. I wasn’t sure how much Leigh had been able to explain before she’d put him on the phone, so I didn’t mention anything about being sick or in the hospital. “Soon, I hope.” The lump that had risen in my throat made it even harder to breathe.
“I miss you,” James whined.
The tears were starting to trickle from my eyes. “I miss you, too.” I knew I couldn’t stay on much longer, and I still wanted to talk to Holden. “I love you, James. I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
“Love you too, Dad,” he echoed.
I took a couple of shaky breaths, trying to keep my composure. Then I asked, “Is Holden in the room with you? Can you put me on speakerphone so he can hear me?”
“Yeah... just a minute.” I heard him fumbling around for a few seconds, and then he said, “Okay.” I could tell by the sound of his voice that the speaker setting was on.
“Hi, Holden!” I said. “It’s Dada!”
I heard James repeating me - “It’s Dada, Holden! It’s Dada!” - and pictured him dancing around hyperly in front of Holden, who giggled in the background. It made my heart feel much lighter to hear my baby boy laughing, sounding happy and healthy. I tried to draw strength from that.
I knew I wouldn’t get much conversation out of a toddler and didn’t have the time to try, so all I said was, “Dada loves you, Holden. I love you both so much. Keep on being my brave boys, okay?”
“You be brave too, Daddy.” I could hear Leigh’s voice, loud and clear in my ear, and pictured her sitting on the couch between the boys, holding the phone in her lap. “We love you.”
Tears were streaming down my face now, dripping from the mask. “His sats are dropping,” I heard Charlene say, and I knew my time was almost up.
“I’ve gotta get off the phone now, guys,” I said reluctantly. “I’ll try to talk to you soon.”
“Bye, Daddy!” I heard James shout, just before Brian ended the call. There were tears in his eyes, too.
“We can’t wait any longer to intubate, Mr. Dorough.” Dr. Mikael was back. She stood at the foot of my bed, looking grim as she stared up at the monitor over my head. “Your oxygen saturation level is dangerously low, and your blood gases don’t look any better.”
I nodded, knowing there was no point in trying to delay the inevitable.
“We’re going to put you to sleep while we insert the breathing tube into your windpipe. When you wake up, you’ll be on a ventilator. We’ll keep you sedated so you can relax and let the machine breathe for you until you’re ready to be extubated,” the doctor explained. “Do you have any questions?”
I shook my head.
Dr. Mikael looked around the room at the others. “It’s getting pretty crowded in here, guys. We need some room to work, so I’m gonna need you to wait in the hall while we intubate him. When we’re done, you can come back in, two at a time.”
Brian bent down and gave me the best hug he could with all the tubes and wires in the way. “Hang in there, Howie,” he said, and then he backed away.
AJ stepped forward and gripped my shoulder. “Love ya, man... well, maybe not in the same way Nick does, but... you know what I mean.” He grinned, and I winked, knowing exactly what he meant.
Kevin took my hand and held it tightly. “Stay strong, bro,” he said, giving it a squeeze before he let go.
That left just Nick. He’d been standing down at the foot of the bed all by himself, waiting his turn to say goodbye. “Come here, Nicky,” I said, beckoning him to the head.
I had always been able to read Nick like a book, and right then, he was just as scared as I was. I could see the fear in his eyes and the worry written all over his face. And even though I was the one in the hospital bed, I felt compelled to comfort him somehow. Maybe it was because Nick was still a kid when I’d met him or because he’d made so many bad decisions as a young adult, but I’d always tried to take care of him, help him through hard times. This time was no different.
“Gimme your hand,” I said, holding out my arm. He put his hand in mine, and I gave it a squeeze. “Whatever happens... it’s gonna be okay.”
Nick nodded, wiping his nose with the back of his free hand. His eyes were red and watery, and his chin quivered with the effort of trying not to cry.
“Things may look bad right now,” I continued, pausing to catch my breath, “but you know what? My heart’s still beating.” I took his hand and moved it to the left side of my chest, pressing his palm flat against the place where I knew he’d be able to feel my heart pumping through the thin fabric of my hospital gown. “You feel it?”
He nodded again, tears falling now.
“I promise you... as long as my heart’s beating, I’m gonna do everything in my power to get better and get off this breathing machine, okay?”
“I know,” he said hoarsely. “You’re the Indestructible Howie D. You got this, dude.”
I smiled up at him. “Damn straight.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dorough, but we need to do this now,” said Dr. Mikael, lowering the head of my bed as Charlene loosened the straps securing the BiPAP mask to my face. When she lifted off the mask, Nick leaned over and kissed my lips, in full view of the doctor, the nurse, and anyone else who was in the room.
“I love you,” he whispered, giving my hand one last squeeze before he let go.
I winked at him. “I know.”
“Howie, I’m going to inject some medicine into your IV to make you sleep,” I heard Charlene say.
I locked eyes with Nick. “Please don’t take embarrassing pictures of me while I’m out, okay?” I mumbled, already feeling the effects of the sedative.
Nick let out a guttural noise that sounded like half a laugh and half a sob. “I make no promises,” he said, smiling at me through his tears as I faded away. His face was the last thing I saw before my eyelids fell shut and the last thing I remembered before I lost consciousness.