- Text Size +

A chorus of screams greeted me as I stepped out onto the stage. “Konnichiwa!” I called with a grin. Magnified by the microphone, my Japanese greeting echoed through the mostly empty stadium, earning me more cheers. I gazed down at the small group of fans - mostly female - that had gathered in the first few rows for our soundcheck party. They were all watching me with big smiles on their faces and stars in their eyes. I felt a rush of happiness bubble up inside me like a fizzy drink. It was good to be back.

Tokyo was one of my favorite cities in the world. I loved the food, the nightlife, the people, the culture. I was happy we were kicking off the tour there, playing the Tokyo Dome two nights in a row before we went on to Australia.

Most of all, I was just glad to get away. Touring had always been a form of escapism for me, but that was never more true than now. The past six weeks had been hard: hanging out at the hospital, watching Kevin struggle through his rehabilitation while he mourned the loss of his wife and his old way of life. As much as I hated to leave him like that, I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off my chest when we landed in Japan. I just wanted life to go back to normal - and for me, this was normal. Traveling. Performing. Entertaining.

At first, it felt normal. As AJ, Howie, Brian, and I went through our soundcheck, singing a few songs for the fans who had come to watch it, I was able to lose myself in the music and forget about Kevin for a little while. But I was brought right back to the rehab hospital when it came time for the Q&A. Of course, the first fan called on to ask us a question just wanted to know how Kevin was doing.

Thankfully, Brian took that one. “Kevin’s getting better every day,” he told the crowd, being vague but honest. “He appreciates all the love and support you’ve been sending his way.”

The fans smiled and nodded, applauding politely. Our fan club photographer, Justin, quickly moved on to the next question, but my mind wandered back to Kevin. I wondered what he was doing at that moment, halfway around the world. Probably sleeping, since it was the middle of the night in L.A. Or maybe he was lying awake, unable to sleep. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him.

It was weird not having him there with us. I wished he was sitting on the stool next to mine, telling some drawn-out story, talking super slow to make sure the foreign fans understood what he was saying. There were times when he drove me nuts with his long-winded speeches, his perfectionism, and his need for his control, but now I realized how much I had taken him for granted. Rehearsals weren’t the same without him. When Kevin was with us, we would run through songs over and over again until everything sounded just right. Now our soundcheck really was more like a party, a performance. In some ways, it was more relaxed and fun, but it also made me realize how much more disciplined we had been with Kevin around. He had brought out the best in us, and we would never be as great without him. As a foursome, the Backstreet Boys felt incomplete.

After the Q&A, we moved down to the floor for the meet and greet. The four of us stood behind a barricade as the fans slowly filed past us, shaking our hands and stopping to pose for a quick picture. A few of them were in wheelchairs. We always paid special attention to the fans with special needs, gathering in front of the barricade so we could get down to their level for the photo, but for the first time, I found myself wondering about the people sitting in those chairs. What were their stories? Had they been born with a disability, or did they become that way later in life, like Kevin? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I just tried to talk to them like I would any other fan. I assumed that was what Kevin would have wanted: to be treated normally.

His absence hit me hard that night during our opening number. As we were introduced one by one and stepped into the ring onstage to start “Larger Than Life,” I thought, There should be one more. He should be here. Remembering the tears in Kevin’s eyes when we’d given him the boxing robe with RICHARDSON on the back brought tears to my own eyes, but I blinked them back, bouncing in place to shake off my emotions as the music pounded.

Once I started singing and dancing, it was easier to focus on the lyrics and choreography and lose myself in my performance. I was fine when we were doing new tracks from the Unbreakable album, but every time I heard Howie’s voice sing Kevin’s part on one of our old singles, it brought his face back to the forefront of my mind.

It began with “I Want It That Way.” Even though I’d heard Howie sing Kevin’s line (“Now I can see that we’ve fallen apart... from the way that we used to be, ye-eah...”) a hundred times in rehearsal, it felt different in front of a crowd of forty thousand fans. I could see the faces in the first few rows turn toward each other, exchanging glances. Their expressions matched the way I felt inside: happy for Howie, but clearly missing Kevin.

“‘Cause I want it… that way…” After AJ finished the last line, we ran backstage for our first wardrobe change while Howie went out to sing his solo, “She’s Like the Sun.”

“He’s havin’ the time of his life out there,” said Brian, smiling, as we watched Howie perform from backstage.

I snickered. “He hasn’t gotten this many solos since you joined the group. Kevin leaving was the best thing to ever happen to Howie.” I knew Howie missed him, too, but Kevin’s departure had definitely worked out in his favor. He had double the number of parts he’d had before. Finally, Howie had a chance to shine, while Kevin was stuck in the shadows.

When the stage lights went dark at the end of Howie’s song, he hurried backstage for a quick change while the stagehands set up for the next song, “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely.” I loved the concept we had come up with for this one. The four of us sang it while sitting around a card table, drinking Hennessy and playing poker. It felt like a scene out of a movie and made for an intimate moment in the show. For a few minutes, I could imagine us tucked into the corner of a tiny bar, drowning our sorrows in liquor… or huddled together in a hospital waiting room, sipping coffee.

“Show me the meaning of being lonely. Is this the feeling I need to walk with?” As we sang the chorus, I couldn’t help but think of Kevin, widowed and alone. “Tell me why I can’t be there where you are. There’s something missing in my heart.”

I got emotional again as Howie started singing Kevin’s solo. “Life goes on… as it never ends. Eyes of stone… observe the trends. They never say… forever gaze, if only.”

“Guilty roads... to an endless love,” I joined him in harmony, hoping the audience wouldn’t hear the quiver in my voice. “There’s no control. Are you with me now? Your every wish… will be done, they tell me...”

That was the hardest part of the show for me. Once it was over, I was able to move past it and lose myself in my performance again. I didn’t think much more about Kevin until he called AJ after the show, as we were riding back to our hotel.

“Hey, Kev’s calling!” AJ announced, holding up his ringing phone. He answered it with an exuberant, “What’s up, Kevy Kev?!”

“Hey, brother,” Kevin’s voice crackled through the air, as AJ put him on speakerphone. If my math was right, it was only about seven-thirty in the morning in California, so he must have just woken up. “I’m just calling to see how your first show went. It’s over by now, right?”

“No, I’m on stage right now. There’s forty thousand fans listening in on this call,” AJ joked. “Everyone say hi to Kevin!”

I’m sure Kevin could tell by the lack of screaming that AJ was just kidding. He laughed and said, “Tell them I miss them very much.” It sounded like he was smiling, but I could also hear the sadness in his voice.

“I’ll tell ‘em tomorrow night. We’re actually all in the van heading back to the hotel.”

“Hey, Kev!” Brian called from the front seat. The rest of us followed suit, shouting various greetings at the same time.

“Hey, fellas!” Kevin replied. “So how was the first show?”

Howie was the first to answer. “It was great!”

“Yeah, Howie actually got to sing,” I added, snickering.

Howie grinned. “I did! Like I said... it was great!”

Kevin laughed again. “You’re welcome for that. I’m happy for you, D. You deserve a chance to show off those pipes of yours.”

“Thanks, man,” said Howie. “So what are you up to?”

“Trust me, you don’t wanna know,” said Kevin in a flat voice. I took that to mean he was in the middle of taking a dump or a bath or doing something else he didn’t want to talk about. I wasn’t sure how all that worked with his new body, and that was fine with me. I didn’t need to know all the details.

Howie tried a different approach. “Well, what’s on your agenda for the rest of your Saturday?”

“I dunno… Weekends are pretty boring around this place. I don’t get the same therapy sessions I go to on weekdays, so there’s not as much to do. I’ll probably just watch TV until Mom brings Mason by for a visit.”

I felt my performance high fading as I listened to Kevin talk. I don’t think he meant to sound like Eeyore, but he did, and it was depressing. It made me feel bad for being on tour while he was stuck in the rehab center. He wouldn’t have been here with us even if this hadn’t happened to him, I reminded myself. And he told me himself he didn’t want us to reschedule the tour. We’re not doing anything wrong.

“That’s great you’ll get to see Mason!” said Brian, his voice bright with enthusiasm. I could tell he was trying his best to be upbeat and cheerful. “Maybe you and your mom can take him to see the therapy horses. I bet he’d love that!”

“Yeah, he probably would.” Kevin seemed to perk up a little. “There’s also a wheelchair basketball game in one of the gyms we may go watch.”

“Even better! Wheelchair basketball - that actually sounds fun! I’d love to watch one of those with you when we get back.”

“We’ll see,” he said. “But look, I didn’t call to bring y’all down with my bullshit. I just wanted to congratulate you on kicking off the tour. Where’s the after party?”

We all exchanged glances and shrugs. No one had planned an official after party. There was no point. Brian wouldn’t have gone anyway; he had his family with him, which meant we barely saw him outside of the concert venue. AJ still had a hard time being around large groups of drunk people without succumbing to temptation, so he probably wouldn’t have wanted to party either. That left me and Howie and Leigh. They liked to have a good time, so I had assumed we, at least, would go out for a lowkey celebration. I looked at Howie, eyebrows raised, and he nodded.

“No after party,” he told Kevin, “but I think Nicky and I are gonna go have a few drinks. Anyone else is welcome to come, too, of course.” He looked around the van, but no one said anything.

“Good - you should go out. Life’s too short not to, you know?” said Kevin quietly. “I sure wish I could come. Drink one for me, will ya?”

Howie nodded, his mouth stretching into a sad, tight-lipped smile. “Will do, man. We wish you were here, too.”

“Thanks.” Kevin cleared his throat. “Well, I better let y’all go now. I’m glad to hear your first show went off without a hitch. Break a leg tomorrow night, too!”

“Thanks, bro,” said AJ. “It’s always good to hear from you. You hang in there, okay?”

“That’s about all I can do,” said Kevin bitterly. “Speaking of hanging… here comes the nurse to hoist my crippled ass out of bed with that damn Hoyer lift so he can hose me off in the shower like Shamu. So I really do have to go.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. It was kind of funny, hearing the way he compared his “crippled ass” to a killer whale out of water, but it was also really sad. I could only imagine how humiliating and dehumanizing it must be to have another man undress and wash you like you were an infant… or an animal. No wonder Kevin sounded so depressed. I wouldn’t want to live like that either.

“We love you, Kev!” I called lamely, knowing there was nothing I could say that would fix the situation or make him feel better. All any of us could do was be there for him… except we weren’t. We were on the other side of the world, living our old lives while he struggled to adapt to his new one.

“Love you too. I’ll talk to y’all soon.” We heard him whisper something to the nurse who must have overheard our whole conversation, and then there was nothing but dead air. As far as I knew, Kevin still couldn’t work the buttons on his phone with his paralyzed fingers, so he’d probably had the nurse place the call and hang up for him.

An awkward silence fell in the van after that. Kevin’s presence seemed to hover over our heads, heavy in the air. As AJ put his phone back in his pocket, Howie looked at me. “You still wanna go out with us tonight, don’t you?” he asked in a low voice, holding Leigh’s hand in his lap.

“Definitely,” I replied without missing a beat. I knew I would be the third wheel, but that didn’t matter. “I need a drink. And hey, we have to celebrate your promotion!”

“My promotion?” Howie looked confused.

“Yeah! Howie D… lead singer!”

He laughed. “Damn right. Let’s go have a drink!”

When we got back to the hotel, we returned to our rooms just long enough to change, and then Howie, Leigh, and I headed out with two of our bodyguards, Q and Josh, in tow. We went to one of our favorite clubs in Tokyo, where we drank and danced the rest of the night away. We raised glasses of sake in a toast to Kevin, then downed shots of whiskey and tequila to try to take our minds off him. For one night, we just wanted to have fun and forget.