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It felt good to get back into the rehearsal studio. Preparing for the tour gave me something to focus on besides Kevin and kept both my body and mind busy. By the end of each day, I was so tired, I had no trouble falling asleep. I didn’t even need to drink to help me relax.

While we were rehearsing, Kevin was rehabilitating. Toward the end of January, he was transferred to a rehab hospital called Rancho Colina to continue his recovery. We took turns visiting him in the evening, after our rehearsals had wrapped and his therapy sessions were done for the day.

My twenty-eighth birthday was on a Monday. It was AJ’s and my turn to visit Kevin, so right after rehearsal, we drove out to the rehab center. Rancho Colina lived up to its name; the sprawling, Spanish-style building sat on a large piece of land located at the base of a mountain. The campus had everything a person in Kevin’s situation could ask for: beautiful scenery, spacious rooms, specialized gyms for physical therapy and sports, a pool for aquatic therapy, even a stable for therapeutic horseback riding.

We all thought Kevin would thrive there, but the first time AJ and I went for a visit, we found him almost catatonic in bed. His new doctor at the center had weaned him off most of the medications he’d been given in the hospital, which included heavy-duty painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety drugs. As a result, Kevin was anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, and in pain. It was almost harder to see him that way than when he was unconscious in the ICU, so we kept our visit short. I hoped the second visit would go better, but I felt nervous as AJ and I walked down the hall to his room.

“Come on in!” I heard Kevin call when we knocked on the door. He sounded more energetic than he had the other day, but I still had no idea what to expect. I sucked in a deep breath, bracing myself as AJ opened the door. But it was like a night and day difference from before: We went in to find Kevin no longer lying in bed, but sitting up in a wheelchair. “Hey!” he exclaimed, all smiles when he saw us. “Happy birthday, Nick!”

“Hey, thanks!” I replied, pasting a smile onto my face to hide how I was really feeling. Part of me was genuinely happy to see Kevin out of bed for the first time since his accident, but there was also a part of me that was taken aback by the sight of him in a wheelchair. I had been trying to picture him that way ever since I’d first heard the words “spinal cord injury” come out of the doctor’s mouth, but actually seeing it hit me harder than I had expected it would.

In a way, it was worse than when he was laid out flat on his back in a hospital bed, hooked up to all those tubes and wires in the ICU. At least then, it had been possible for me to pretend this was all just temporary: Kevin was clearly hurt, but after healing in the hospital for a few weeks, he would be fine. Up until that point, I had clung to the hope of him proving his doctor wrong by walking again one day. Seeing him strapped into that wheelchair put an end to my denial. Dressed in a pair of baggy sweats instead of a hospital gown, with nothing but the brace around his neck to suggest he had been injured recently, Kevin didn’t look like a patient anymore. He looked like a disabled person. That was what finally forced me to accept the fact that his quadriplegia was permanent.

“You got a nice set of wheels there, Kev,” said AJ, giving him a nod of approval. “Looking good, dude!”

I admired AJ’s ability to find the right words for any situation. He was never awkward like me; he always seemed to know exactly what to say to put someone else at ease.

Kevin smiled. “Thanks. It’s just a loaner so I can get used to sitting in one. Eventually I’ll be fit for a power chair, but for now, I have to be pushed around.” He cleared his throat. “Actually, I was hoping y’all could take me out into the courtyard for a while. I’d love to get some fresh air.”

“Yeah, of course!” I chimed in, trying to sound as cheerful as AJ. “I mean, if it’s okay with the nurses here.”

“They won’t mind,” said Kevin. “We’re encouraged to move around as much as we can. I just can’t do much on my own yet. But watch…” Slowly, he brought both arms up, letting them hover about a foot above the armrests of his chair. His elbows were bent, so he looked like a bird flapping its wings.

AJ and I both gasped. “Kevin! Your arms! That’s awesome!” It wasn’t much, but it was the most we had seen him move since the accident.

Kevin grinned, obviously pleased with himself. “I can’t straighten them out - that would take my triceps, which I don’t have - but I’ve been working on strengthening my biceps in P.T.”

“You’re gonna have some serious guns when you get out of here,” I said, flexing my own arms.

Kevin sighed. “I hope so. I’m gonna need ‘em.” A shadow crossed briefly over his face before his expression brightened again. “But hey, speaking of guns… I’ve got a gift for you, Birthday Boy. It’s behind the chair over there.” He waved one arm vaguely toward the corner.

I went to retrieve it and found a tower of two big boxes sitting on the floor. They were wrapped in shiny, gold paper and tied together with ribbon. “Did you wrap this yourself?” I joked as I sat in the chair, setting the box down in front of me.

“Yeah - with my teeth,” he played along, flashing another grin. “Go ahead and open it.”

I was glad to see him in such a good mood. They must have put him back on the happy pills - painkillers or antidepressants or something. “Okay…” I slid off the ribbon and tore the paper off the top box. Taking off the lid, I pulled back layers of tissue paper to reveal a pair of red boxing gloves set inside a clear display case.

As I carefully lifted the case out of the box, I heard Kevin explain, “You’d said boxing helped you get back in shape last year, and you seemed so excited talking about your boxing intro for the tour the other day… I thought you’d appreciate these. They’re autographed by two of the greatest.”

Tilting the box to get a better look, I noticed a name scrawled in black marker across one of the gloves. I squinted at it, recognizing an M… an H… a D… a A. My eyes widened as I looked up at Kevin. “Muhammad Ali??” I asked in disbelief.

He smiled, his chin dipping onto his neck brace as he tried to nod. “He was from Kentucky too, you know. Louisville. My dad went to one of his fights there in the early sixties.”

“Wow… did this belong to your dad?”

I was starting to feel bad that he would pass on a family heirloom to me, when Kevin laughed. “No. I had my mom order it from Ebay.”

“Oh…” I laughed, too. “Who signed the other one?” I turned the display case around to look at the large, looping signature on the other glove. I couldn’t decipher it.

“George Foreman,” said Kevin. “They fought each other just once, in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Africa. Then they became friends.”

I nodded. Kevin never gave a gift without a long-winded story to accompany it. I’d never realized he knew so much about boxing. He had always been more of a football guy. “This is really cool,” I said, rotating the case again to take another look at Ali’s glove. “Thanks, dawg.”

“I hope they’ll remind you to stay in the ring and keep fighting, even when things get tough,” he said, giving me a meaningful look.

I nodded again, a lump rising in my throat. Leave it to Kevin to give me advice in the form of a boxing metaphor while he was sitting in a wheelchair with the fight of his life ahead of him. But he knew what a struggle the last few years had been for me, between my dysfunctional family, toxic friends, bad relationships, and hard-partying ways. For my twenty-first birthday, he had given me a self-help book called The Power of Positive Thinking. I hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but I brought it with me as I moved around from Florida to California to Tennessee. Years later, I finally took it down from the shelf and read it. I got a lot more out of it than I had expected to. It had helped me to make some positive changes, like losing weight and cutting the bad influences out of my life. I still had a lot of work to do on myself, but at least it was a start.

“Open the other one. There’s a bit of a theme here.”

“Okay…” I carefully set down the display case and picked up the other package. It was heavy, too. “You’re not gonna ask me to do a ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and off you or something, are you?” I blurted, glancing up at Kevin.

“Jesus, Nick,” AJ hissed, clapping his hand to his forehead. “Don’t say shit like that.”

I felt my face flush. “What? I was just kidding. But also, like, making sure there wasn’t some other hidden meaning behind the boxing theme,” I said, looking back at Kevin.

He frowned at me. “No, Nick, I would never ask you to help me kill myself. My son already lost his mother; the last thing I’d wanna do is leave him without a father, too.”

“I… I know,” I stammered, ashamed of myself. Why did I say such stupid things? “I wasn’t being serious. Sorry, bro - bad joke.”

“It’s all good,” said Kevin, his face relaxing into a smile. “Open your gift. I promise it’s not a gun to put in my mouth.”

That made me cringe, but I quickly focused on the present in my lap. Curious, I unwrapped it to find a glossy, red and white box with George Foreman’s face grinning at me from behind a picture of a countertop grill. “You got me a George Foreman grill?” I said, cracking up.

Kevin looked slightly embarrassed. “My mom got it for you. She loves hers and thought it would be a more practical gift for a single guy turning twenty-eight. This way, you can learn to cook and keep the pounds off. You don’t have one already, do you?”

I laughed. “Actually, no, I don’t. This is great. I love it. Tell your mom thanks for me.”

“I will. She’ll be thrilled.”

“Looks like Nick’s on dinner duty the rest of the week. No more takeout at the McLean house!” AJ announced.

“Fine, but you’re buying the meat. Can you cook ribeye steak with this thing?” I turned the box over to look at the pictures on the back.

“I dunno about ribeyes, but I could go for some ice cream,” said Kevin. “Whaddaya say, Birthday Boy? My treat?”

“You know I love me some ice cream - maybe a little too much,” I said, patting my belly. “But yeah… that sounds great. Where do we get ice cream around here?”

“There’s a cafeteria,” said Kevin. “It’s open to visitors, too.”

“Okay, let’s do it.” I set the grill down on top of the boxing gloves and stood up.

“I just need to let my nurse know where we’re going. Can one of you hit the call button on my bed there?”

“Sure thing,” said AJ, picking up a small remote and pressing the button. I wondered how Kevin was expected to use it to call for help when he had no control over his hands, but I held the question back, not wanting to say anything else that might offend him.

A few minutes later, a male nurse popped his head into the room. “What’s up, Kevin?” he asked as he walked in.

“Hey, Cole. Is it okay if I have my friends take me to the cafeteria? It’s my buddy Nick’s golden birthday. We’re gonna get some ice cream.”

I fought the urge to laugh. Kevin sounded like a kid asking his parents for permission to ride his bike to the ice cream place. It was funny at first, but then it just made me feel sorry for him. In a way, he was like a child, no longer able to take care of himself as most grown men could. Going to the hospital cafeteria for ice cream with his friends was probably the highlight of his day in this place.

“Sure. Let me just show your friends a couple things on your chair first.” The nurse, Cole, demonstrated taking off the brakes and putting them back on again to park Kevin’s wheelchair. Then he taught AJ and me how to tilt the chair back further in case Kevin got dizzy. “His blood pressure tends to drop when he’s been sitting up too long, so if he starts getting really pale or dizzy, he needs to be put in a reclining position,” he explained, adjusting the angle of the chair so Kevin was leaning back against his headrest. “Also, his seat belt needs to stay on at all times. Remember he doesn’t have the core strength to hold himself steady, so if you stop too fast or hit a bump, he could be thrown forward and fall out of the chair without the belt.”

I felt a flicker of fear as I looked from the strap buckled across Kevin’s lap over to AJ. I found him staring back at me, his eyebrows raised. Taking Kevin to the cafeteria hadn’t seemed like a big deal, but there was a lot more responsibility involved than either of us had realized.

“Do you think you’ll be going outside at all?” Cole asked.

“What’s the temperature like today?” Kevin wanted to know.

“It’s kinda chilly outside.” I checked the weather app on my phone. “It’s only fifty-five right now.”

“That’s not bad,” said Kevin. “Yeah, we may go out into the courtyard for a bit.” I could tell he was itching to get some fresh air.

“Okay, then you’ll want to bring a blanket.” Turning back to us, Cole explained, “People with spinal cord injuries lose the ability to regulate their body temperature below the level of injury, so they get hot or cold easily. Here…” He grabbed a fleece blanket off the foot of Kevin’s bed and draped it across his lap, tucking the ends in so it wouldn’t trail on the ground or get stuck in the spokes of his wheels. “That should help. Do you guys have any questions?”

“Uh… who do we call if he… um… if he needs help or anything?” I asked awkwardly. What I was really wondering was what we would do if Kevin’s blood pressure suddenly crashed or he fell out of his chair or developed hypothermia or any of the other things Cole was worried about. I was suddenly worried about all that, too. The last thing I wanted was for Kevin to get hurt worse under my watch.

“Just grab the nearest staff member, and they’ll call the rapid response team,” said Cole nonchalantly. “Do you want one of us to go with you?”

“No,” said Kevin quickly, before AJ or I could answer. “We’ll be fine, Cole. Thanks.”

“No problem. Enjoy your ice cream.”

“We will. Thanks.”

When the nurse left, AJ and I looked at each other again. I could see the uncertainty in his eyes; it mirrored the expression that must have been on my face, too. But I also knew how much this meant to Kevin. He had probably been looking forward to it all day. Clearing my throat, I said, “So… who’s pushing this thing, you or me?”

AJ snorted. “I’ve seen the way you drive. I’d better push. That okay with you, Kev?”

“I guess it’s gonna have to be, or I’m not going anywhere,” Kevin said with a crooked grin. “They’ve got me learning how to use a sip and puff chair - that’s the kind you control with your mouth, like a straw - but I’m not good enough at it yet to get around on my own. Some of the other guys around here have said if I get back some wrist function, I’ll be able to use a joystick, maybe even a manual chair someday.”

He sounded surprisingly upbeat and optimistic, but it made me sad to hear him talk about graduating to a manual wheelchair like that was his end goal, like he’d already given up on the hope of ever walking again. Maybe he had accepted his prognosis, but I was still struggling with it.

“All right… let’s go.” AJ got behind Kevin’s chair and pushed him across the room. I ran ahead to hold the door open, but I didn’t need to - being a rehab hospital, all the rooms were fully accessible. The door opened automatically with the press of a button on the wall and stayed open as AJ eased the wheelchair through the wide doorway.

I walked alongside them as we went down the hall, following Kevin’s directions. “You can go faster, you know,” he told AJ. “You’re driving this chair like a little old lady.”

I started laughing as AJ shook his head. “Hey now… you heard what the nurse said. I don’t wanna accidentally eject you out of this thing,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

“What’s the worst that could happen? I already broke my neck.”

“Good point.” AJ suddenly pulled back on the handlebars, popping a wheelie. I heard Kevin gasp as he was thrown backwards, but then he began to laugh.

“Dude!” I cried. My heart had leaped when I saw the wheelchair tip, thinking Kevin was going down. “Don’t do that! You about gave me a heart attack.” I pressed my hand to my chest, where I could feel it hammering like crazy.

“Me too,” Kevin admitted, but there was a big grin on his face.

AJ snickered. “Sorry. You okay, Kev?”

“Yeah, bro, I’m good. Y’all don’t have to treat me like glass. I’m not gonna break.”

We had fun with the wheelchair after that, weaving it back and forth as we raced down the deserted hallway, stopping whenever another patient or staff member came around a corner. It was hard to keep a straight face as they walked or wheeled past us. Once they were gone, AJ would pop another wheelie, and we’d go back to goofing around.

We finally found our way to the cafeteria, where there was an ice cream counter in one corner. I got a dish of vanilla with sprinkles, while AJ ordered a twist cone. “Make mine a milkshake, please,” Kevin told the woman behind the counter, who whipped up a chocolate shake in a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw for him.

Kevin couldn’t hold the cup himself, so I carried it over to a table, pulling back one of the chairs so we could park his wheelchair in front of it. Even then, he had a hard time leaning down far enough to reach the end of the bendy straw without his whole body flopping forward, so I held the cup for him, bringing it to his lips in between bites of my own ice cream.

I had watched him multitask this very same way at Howie’s wedding, where he had fed Mason a bottle with one hand while eating his own dinner with the other. At the time, it had only reinforced my own decision never to have children. I’m glad that isn’t me, I remember thinking with relief as I cut into my beef tenderloin, selfishly relishing my freedom. Less than two months later, I found myself dutifully feeding my big brother. I didn’t mind, but as I held the milkshake in front of his face for him to drink, I was secretly still thinking, I’m glad that isn’t me.

I could only imagine how hard it was for Kevin to be completely dependent on others to feed and care for him like he was a baby. I would have hated it. He must have hated it, too, but he never complained. He just kept thanking me and AJ for being there and helping him.

“Of course, bro,” I said, brushing his gratitude aside. “What are friends for?”

When we finished our ice cream, we went outside to a courtyard, where several other patients were hanging out with their families and friends. I saw other people in wheelchairs, people using walkers or crutches, people with missing limbs. Watching them out of the corner of my eye made me even more appreciative of the fact that I was only a visitor at this place.

We walked around for a few minutes, admiring the beautifully-landscaped flower beds and the bubbling fountain in the middle. Then we parked Kevin in a patch of sunlight near a bench where AJ and I could sit down. “You okay, Kev?” said AJ, as Kevin leaned his head back against the headrest of his chair and closed his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied without opening them. “The sun feels good.” He seemed to be savoring the feeling of fresh air and sunlight on his face.

“Are you warm enough?” I asked.

His smile melted into a frown. “I said I’m fine. Stop worrying.”

“Sorry. Just making sure.”

Kevin sighed. “No, I’m sorry,” he said, opening his eyes. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just get so sick of being asked the same questions over and over again. How am I doing? How am I feeling? Am I okay? I don’t mean you guys - I’m talking about the doctors and nurses and therapists and assistants… It’s nonstop, all day long. I know they’re just doing their jobs and trying to take care of me, which I appreciate, but sometimes I just wish they’d leave me alone. But if they did, I’d be stuck lying in bed with nothing to do, and I don’t want that either. I guess I just want life to go back to normal. I wanna go home… and hug my son… and kiss my wife… but I know that’s not gonna happen. Even when I do get out of here, my life’s never gonna be the same again.”

He was staring straight ahead as he spoke, not really looking at either AJ or me, but somewhere between us. I saw tears in his eyes and felt my heart sink. Up until that point, he had seemed happy, and I was glad he was having a good day. But now I found myself wondering if he had just been forcing himself to be upbeat for my birthday.

“Let it out, dude,” I said, reaching out to rub his shoulder. It was one of the only places I knew he could feel, and I hoped the weight of my hand was reassuring in some way. “You can rant to us any time. We don’t mind - right, AJ?”

“Damn right,” AJ agreed. “You don’t have to hold back around us. Just don’t take it out on those poor nurses and other people who’ve been taking care of you. They’re only trying to help.”

“I know,” said Kevin, a single tear trickling down his cheek.

“We don’t blame you for being mad… or sad… or however you’re feeling right now,” I added softly, trying to be sensitive. “I would be, too. Hell, I am mad. This never should have happened to you - or Kristin. It’s not fair.”

Kevin sniffled. “I know.” He fell silent for a few seconds, and so did AJ and I, neither of us knew what else to say. I was running out of encouraging words. Thankfully, before it could get awkward, Kevin cleared his throat. “I met with a lawyer this morning - the one Kristin’s dad hired to sue the woman who hit us.”

“Oh… how’d that go?” asked AJ.

“Okay, I guess. I dunno... I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Like on one hand, of course I’m fucking mad. A part of me hates her for driving drunk and killing my wife. But I don’t think Kristin would want me to live with hate in my heart. She believed in love… and grace… and forgiveness.”

I shook my head. “How do you forgive someone for something like that?”

Kevin shrugged. “You have to have empathy. Try to put yourself in her shoes,” he said. “Did she do this on purpose? I doubt it. Is she a bad person? Probably not. She made a bad decision… a big mistake. But haven’t we all messed up before?”

He looked me in the eye, and I felt my face redden as I reflected on my own checkered history. I had definitely messed up before. Thankfully, my mistakes had resulted in a DUI rather than manslaughter. Under different circumstances, I may not have been so lucky. I could easily have killed or crippled someone with my car, too. The thought made me feel sick to my stomach, my ice cream churning around like it was still inside the soft serve machine.

“Her mistake left a man in a wheelchair and a little baby without his mother, and she’s gonna have to live with that for the rest of her life,” he went on bitterly. “I hope she feels bad about it. I hope she learns from it. But just because my life has been ruined doesn’t mean hers should be, too. I’m not out to bankrupt her, you know?”

Kevin was being much more compassionate than I would have been in his situation. But maybe it was because of me - and AJ - that he was even willing to consider forgiveness.

“You’re a good man, Kev,” said AJ, clapping his hand down on Kevin’s shoulder. “Mason’s sure lucky to have you as his dad.”

Kevin’s mouth stretched into a tight-lipped smile. “Thanks, J.” His eyes were red and watery, and his nose was running, making him look even more miserable. I wished I’d thought to bring a tissue.

“Maybe we should head back inside now,” I suggested. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” Kevin sighed. “I guess.”

“I get to drive this time,” I told AJ, slipping behind the wheelchair before he could beat me to it.

As I pushed Kevin back into the building, passing other patients with wheelchairs and walkers, I was reminded of the retirement home my parents ran when I was a kid. I used to spend a lot of time there, talking to the old people whose families didn’t visit often enough and performing in the little shows I put on for them. They would let me push their wheelchairs and play with their canes and eat as many pieces of hard candy as I wanted. It was fun, like having dozens of grandparents. I enjoyed it, but when each visit came to an end, I was secretly glad to leave. There was just something sad about the place - all the lonely people shuffling up and down the hallways, the smell of sickness lingering in the air.

The rehab hospital was like that, too. I told myself it wasn’t the same; Kevin was here to get his life back, not live out his last days. But at the end of our visit, I would feel the same way: secretly glad to leave.

When we got back to Kevin’s room, his nurse, Cole, came in with an assistant to hoist him out of his chair and back into bed. They used a special lift, which consisted of a big blue sling hanging from a mechanical arm that was meant to do the heavy lifting. “Doesn’t this remind you of the things they used to haul whales out of the water at SeaWorld?” Kevin asked us dryly, as they strapped him in.

AJ laughed. “You’re like Shamu.”

But I had been thinking about the harnesses we had used to fly over the crowd during the Millennium tour. Poor Kevin was a far cry from that high point in his career. I could see the humiliation burning in his face as the sling hoisted his limp body out of the wheelchair and lowered him onto the bed.

Cole made sure he was comfortable, propping him up with the usual assortment of pillows before he left. “We should probably go pretty soon, too,” I said, glancing out the window. The sun was going down, and Howie had made dinner reservations for a group of us to go out for my birthday.

“Oh yeah, I don’t wanna keep you,” said Kevin. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your birthday. Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Thanks for the gifts, bro,” I replied, gathering up the boxing gloves and grill. “I’ll let you know how the indoor grilling goes.”

“Yeah, you better hope he doesn’t start a fire with that thing and burn down my house,” added AJ, rolling his eyes as he held the door open for me.

“Ha-ha, real funny, AJ…”

It was hard to say goodbye to Kevin. But as I looked back and saw him lying motionless on the bed, I couldn’t help but think again, I’m glad that isn’t me.