James turned five the day after Leigh and I finalized our divorce. To celebrate (his birthday, not our divorce), we took him to the Magic Kingdom.
There had been some debate between Leigh and me about who was going to Disney World. She didn’t think Holden or I should go. “Think of all the germs!” she said. “He’s been doing so much better, but I don’t want to expose him to something that could set back his progress. And you’re not supposed to be around big crowds either, are you?”
“As of today, it’s been four months since my transplant. I’ll be fine,” I assured her, even though it was true that my immunosuppressant drugs made germs a much bigger threat to me than to the average person. But that wasn’t going to stop me from spending the day with my sons. “We’ll just bring plenty of wet wipes and hand sanitizer along to disinfect Holden every time he touches something.”
She rolled her eyes at me, unamused.
I thought she was overreacting. “We can’t keep him in a bubble, Leigh,” I added. “I know he’s little now, but as he gets older, he’s gonna have to learn to live with this, same as the rest of us.”
In the end, she agreed with me, and all four of us headed to Disney like one big, happy family. To look at our smiling faces, you would never know we were broken. Leigh and I were determined to keep up that front for at least one more day, until the time was right to talk to James about the divorce.
“How come Uncle Nick’s not here?” James asked, as we were walking across the parking lot. He was holding my hand, while Leigh pushed Holden in his stroller.
“Oh... I dunno; he had other things to do today, I guess,” I said with a shrug, smiling down at James. I had invited Nick to come along, of course, but he’d declined. I didn’t know what was going on with him; he’d been distant the last two days - more so than usual, anyway. I figured he just felt weird with Leigh and the kids there, like he was intruding on our family time. It didn’t matter to me either way - today was all about James.
“Look, James, can you see Cinderella’s castle?” asked Leigh, pointing, when we made it to Main Street U.S.A.
“Yeah. Where’s Buzz and Woody?” was all James wanted to know, which made us both laugh.
“Hm... I bet Buzz’ll be somewhere in Tomorrowland,” I said, showing James the map we’d picked up at the park entrance. “That’s where all the space stuff is. Look, he even has his own ride! Should we go there first?”
He nodded eagerly, and off to Tomorrowland we went to locate Buzz Lightyear. We found his friend Woody in Frontierland, where, after riding all the “baby” rides with Holden in Fantasyland, James was eager to try out some “big kid” attractions.
“I’m five now, so I can ride that one, right?” he said, pointing to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
“Well, buddy, let’s see if you’re tall enough,” I said, taking him over to the height restriction sign. We’d skipped Space Mountain because James was still a few inches too short, but he was right above the line for Big Thunder.
Leigh and I looked at each other. “I’d better take him,” she said. “I’m not sure you should be riding a roller coaster so soon after your surgery.”
I shrugged. “This one’s not that bad - no worse than driving, I wouldn’t think.”
“Better safe than sorry, though, right?”
In the end, Leigh got her way, and I hung back with Holden, who was definitely too small to ride, while she took James to wait in line. Watching them go, I couldn’t help but feel a little left out. I’d always loved roller coasters, and it would have been fun to be with James as he rode his first one. But someone had to stay with Holden, and of course it made more sense that it should be me.
I pushed him around in his stroller for a while, browsing some of the souvenir shops to escape the heat, then found a shady bench to sit on near the exit of Big Thunder. I parked the stroller, unbuckled Holden, and held him on my lap as we watched the mine trains race around the mountain.
“Look, Holden, see the trains?” I said, bouncing him on my knee. “Soon we’ll see Mommy and James riding on one of those.”
The minutes crept by as we waited for them to get through the long line. To pass the time, I snapped a selfie of Holden and me with my phone and uploaded it to Instagram with the caption, “Celebrating James’s 5th birthday at Disney World. Holden and I are waiting for the birthday boy and Mommy to finish riding Big Thunder Mountain.”
I should have known to be less specific. Soon afterward, we were approached by a couple of women who looked to be in their late twenties. “Hi... Howie?” one of them said, while the other gave me a nervous grin.
Recognizing the look of two starstruck fans, I smiled back at them. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Wow, it is you!” the second girl spoke breathlessly, her eyes lighting up. “We just saw your tweet saying you were here! Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we found you!” She exchanged an incredulous look with her friend. “I can’t believe we’re meeting a Backstreet Boy! At Disney World!”
I laughed. “Well, I’m no Prince Charming, but...”
“Psh, you’re way better than him,” said the first girl, waving her hand dismissively. “We’ve been fans of you since we were, like, ten.”
“Oh, wow... thanks!”
“So, um, how are you doing?” asked the second, her smile fading into a solemn expression. “I heard about... well, I read the article where you...” She trailed off awkwardly.
I nodded, understanding what she wanted to ask. “I’m doing fine,” I said, forcing myself to smile at her. “Thanks for asking.”
“Oh yeah, we’ve been praying for you ever since we found out,” said the first girl seriously.
“Well, thanks. I appreciate the support.”
“Oh my gosh, is this your little boy?” the second girl suddenly interjected. She seemed eager to change the subject. “He’s so adorable!”
“Yeah, this is my son Holden,” I replied, putting a protective arm around him. “Can you say hi, Holden?” Instead of waving, Holden gave them the same look he’d given me at the airport and then buried his face in my shoulder. “Sorry, I guess he’s gonna be shy.”
They both giggled. “That’s okay. Hey, would you take a selfie with us?” one of them asked.
“Yeah, sure.” I scooted to the middle of the bench so they could sit on either side of me and took the picture with one of their phones.
“Thanks so much!” they said breathlessly. “It was so nice to meet you!”
“Nice meeting you, too.” I felt a sense of relief as I watched them walk away with their heads together, looking at their selfie. It was the first fan encounter I’d had since going public about my health problems, and it could have been a lot worse. I made a mental note to tell Nick, knowing how afraid he was of anyone finding out his HIV status. Once the initial media storm had died down, it really wasn’t that bad.
Not long after the two women left, James and Leigh came back. “Well, how was it?” I asked.
“He loved it!” said Leigh, looking fondly at our oldest son.
“It was so fun!” James’s face was aglow. “Didja see us, Dad?”
“Sure did, buddy!” I fibbed. “You guys were going super fast! You sure you weren’t scared?”
“No way! I wanna go again!” James shouted, jumping up and down.
Leigh laughed. “Maybe later. Let’s find a different ride, maybe one we can all go on together.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” I agreed.
But when we reached the next ride, Splash Mountain, Leigh looked at me apologetically and said, “I think Holden’s too little for this one, too.”
“Oh... well, that’s okay, maybe James and I will go on this one together then,” I said, smiling down at James. “How’s that sound? You wanna get wet?”
James grinned. “Yeah!”
Leigh cleared her throat loudly. “Actually, Howie, from what I’ve heard, it’s not a good idea for immunosuppressed people to go on water rides.”
“What?” I scoffed. “You’re kidding, right?”
She shook her head. “There could be germs or fungus in the water.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “I’ll take my chances.”
“No, I really think you should wait here with Holden while I take James,” she insisted. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to punish me, somehow, for what I had done to end up in this situation.
“Well, Holden, I guess it’s just you and me again,” I said with a sigh, watching her walk away with James. “So much for spending the day as a family.”
But I didn’t mind being with my baby boy. While James and Leigh were in line, I took Holden to the Country Bear Jamboree. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as Splash Mountain, but the singing bears kept Holden’s attention.
When we rejoined James and Leigh, who had emerged dripping wet and refreshed from the ride, we moved on to Adventureland, where the attractions were more family-friendly. Leigh was careful to wipe down Holden’s hands after every ride and wouldn’t let him touch anything while we were in line. I thought she was being overly cautious, but I kept my opinions to myself, not wanting to start another argument. All in all, it was harder than I’d thought it would be, acting like a happy little family when we were secretly falling apart.
We ended the day with dinner and presents at my mom’s house. She had made all of James’s favorite foods, and we sang “Happy Birthday” while he blew out the five candles on his cake, a big smile on his face. I watched him with a pit in my stomach, hating the thought of spoiling his happiness by breaking the news of our divorce.
But the next morning, Leigh and I did sit him down and explain everything as simply as we could. We had rehearsed the conversation, and it went about as well as we could have expected. James didn’t ask many questions, but I had a feeling it was because he was too young to fully understand the impact it would have on his life.
Sure enough, on the day he and Holden left with Leigh, as I hugged him goodbye at the airport, James started to cry. “But why aren’t you coming with us, Daddy?” he wanted to know.
“Daddy wants to, but I can’t, buddy,” I had to tell him. My heart broke as I watched tears fill his big, brown eyes. “Mommy and I aren’t going to be living together anymore, remember? Like we talked about?” James just sniffled loudly. “But hey, before you know it, it’ll be time for you and Holden to come down here to visit Daddy again, and won’t that be fun?” I asked desperately.
James shook his head. “I don’t wanna go!” he wailed.
“I’m sorry, James,” I whispered, wiping the tears from his cheeks. “I wish it weren’t like this. I love you so, so much.”
Leigh looked at her phone. “Howie, I hate to cut this short, but we need to get going,” she said impatiently. “The security line is really long.”
“Yeah... I wouldn’t want you to miss your flight,” I said, with a heavy sigh. I pulled James into one last hug, kissed Holden’s forehead, and then looked at Leigh. “Let me know when you make it home safe, will you?”
She nodded. “Of course. Take care of yourself.” She grabbed my hand and gave it a little squeeze, then let go.
With a lump in my throat, I watched them walk out of my life. James was still crying; he kept looking back at me with miserable, pleading eyes. I waved once, then forced myself to turn and walk away so he wouldn’t see my eyes watering, too.