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I didn’t have a lot to look forward to in the rehab facility. The days blurred together, each one more or less the same as the one before it. By mid-February, I had settled into my new routine. I refused to think of it as my “new normal,” a phrase the therapists there used often, because none of it felt normal to me. But over the past few weeks, some of the strangeness had worn off, and I had become more accustomed to navigating the world in my new body.

The world inside the rehab hospital, anyway.

I couldn’t forget that there was still a much larger world outside the hospital, a world that wasn’t as accessible as the one within its walls. I worried about what it would be like when I finally went home. But that was also one of the few things I did have to look forward to: going home. It was the main goal I was working toward in my daily therapy sessions.

The other thing I looked forward to was seeing my son. My mom brought Mason by every afternoon. Their visits were the best part of my day, my reward for working hard in therapy.

When the weather was nice, we would take a “walk” outside. Ellis had shown me how to turn a velcro calf strap, which normally stretched across the space beneath the seat of my wheelchair to keep my legs from slipping off the footplates, into a makeshift baby harness so I could hold Mason on my lap without the risk of him falling. He loved going for rides in the power chair, especially when I made it spin in circles. He would laugh and squeal, flailing his little fists in the air as if to say, “Again! Again!” Sometimes I took him to the stables to see the therapy horses. Other times, we stayed in the courtyard and looked at the flowers and fountain.

On cold or rainy days, we would wander the halls instead, head to the cafeteria for some ice cream, or just hang out in my room. My mom brought in plenty of picture books so I could read to Mason, something Kristin and I had done every night since we brought him home from the hospital. She had to help me turn the pages, since neither Mason nor I had the dexterity to do it ourselves, but I did everything else, putting on different silly voices to hold his attention and make him laugh. For a few minutes, I felt almost normal again, just another dad reading to his son.

When Mason wasn’t in the mood to sit still for a story, he would help me with my exercises. He especially loved the large, inflatable ball I used to work on my arm strength and control. I would pick up the ball between my paralyzed fists, feeling a little like a circus seal with flippers instead of hands, and try to lift it over my head without dropping it. Then I would hurl it as far as I could for Mason to chase after. He had only been crawling for a couple of weeks, but he was already getting pretty good at it. “He’s almost faster than I am,” my mom laughed one afternoon, as we watched him scrabble across the room on his hands and knees. “I’ve had to childproof your whole house.”

“Thanks for doing that,” I said, feeling a stab of guilt as I thought about everything my mom had done for Mason and me. She hadn’t been home in seven weeks, not since she’d woken to her phone ringing in the middle of the night and frantically hopped on the first flight she could find out of Kentucky.

“Of course!” she replied, brushing my gratitude aside with a casual wave of her hand. “That’s what mothers are for.”

She always acted like it was no big deal, but I knew how hard it must be for her to take care of a seven-month-old baby on top of everything else she had been handling while I was in the hospital, especially at her age. But she never complained or made me feel like a burden. When I had brought up the idea of hiring a nanny, she wouldn’t hear of it.

“He’s my grandson!” she had exclaimed, seeming almost offended, as if I were suggesting she wasn’t capable of caring for Mason herself. “I’m happy to help out however I can. I wish the circumstances were different, of course, but it’s been nice getting to spend this time with him and watch him grow. Babies change so quickly in the first year.”

Don’t I know it, I thought sadly, thinking of how much Mason had changed in the last month alone and how much I was missing by not being home with him. I couldn’t wait to get out of rehab and back to my old life. But there was still a lot that had to happen before that was possible.

“Next you’ll have to Kevin-proof the whole house,” I told her, only half-joking. In quad class last week, we had learned about ways to make our homes wheelchair-accessible. It was going to take a fair amount of time, money, and work to bring my two-story house, built in 1936, up to code.

My mom gave me a look of confusion, seemingly caught off-guard by my comment. “What do you mean? You’re not planning to stay in your current house, are you?”

“Well, yeah…” I was equally confused by her weird reaction. “What else would I do?”

Her mouth hung open for a few seconds before she found the words she was searching for. “Well... I guess I just assumed you would come home to Kentucky and live with me, at least for a little while, until you’re back on your - until you’re more independent, I mean.” A faint blush rose in her cheeks as she seemed to realize, mid-sentence, she had said the wrong thing.

“You know what they say about people who assume,” I could practically hear my father’s voice recite. “They make an ASS of U and ME.” That was one of his favorite adages. I knew better than to repeat it in front of my mother, but clearly, it was time to have the conversation I had been putting off for a few weeks now.

I tried to break it to her gently. “I love you, Ma, but I wasn’t planning to go back to Kentucky. My home is here. Mason’s home is here.”

“But your brothers are helping renovate my house for you. We were going to surprise you with photos when the work is further along.”

I felt a lump rise in my throat as I looked at my mother, reading the disappointment written across her face. “Oh wow… that’ll be real nice when I come home for the holidays. Thank you. But it doesn’t change how I feel. I wanna stay here, in the house Kristin and I bought together. I just can’t bring myself to sell it, at least not right now. I have too many memories there, you know?”

My mom nodded. “I know…” Deep down, I knew she understood. She had been just as reluctant to move out of the last house she had lived in with my dad when I wanted to buy her a bigger, nicer place with the money I’d made from BSB. Leaving it must have felt like she was leaving a part of her heart behind - at least, that was how I felt about leaving the home Kristin and I had purchased as newlyweds. I knew one day, I would have to move on, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to get rid of the house… or her.

“We can make it work,” I went on. “I’ll have my case manager come by someday while you’re here to go over options with us. She said she can recommend contractors and medical supply companies to order what I’ll need.”

“But… does that mean you’re planning to live there alone? Or do you want me to move in with you permanently? Because I will,” she added quickly, “if that’s what you want.” But I could hear the hesitation in her voice. As much as she loved me and Mason, I knew my mom didn’t really want to live with us long-term. She also loved her home in Kentucky and hated California, or at least L.A. Seven weeks was the longest she had ever stayed out here, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was secretly counting down the days until she could go home again.

“Nah, you don’t need to do that. No offense, but I don’t want you to do that. Not that I don’t appreciate the offer… but I’m a grown man, Ma.”

“But who’s going to take care of you and Mason?” she pressed. “I’ve read up on this, Kevin, and I’ve talked to your doctor. It’s just not possible for people with your level of injury to be fully independent. You’re going to need someone to live with you or at least come over a couple times a day to help you. How else are you going to get dressed or go to the bathroom or-?”

“Do you really think I want my own mother helping me with that stuff?” I interrupted her, feeling my face heat up.

She looked hurt. “Why not? It’s not like I haven’t changed your diapers or bathed and dressed you before, Kevin. You don’t need to be embarrassed.”

If she thought that would make me feel less embarrassed, she was wrong. “I’m not a baby anymore, Ma. I don’t wanna be treated like one.” I glanced down at Mason, who was playing happily on the floor. “And no offense, but you’re not exactly as young as you were when you were doing all that stuff for me - and I’m a hell of a lot bigger and heavier now. There’s no way you would be able to lift me in and out of my chair.”

She frowned. “I’m a lot stronger than I look,” she insisted, flexing her arm to show off her muscles. “And if I can’t manage, we can always get one of those automatic lifts.” She looked at the hated Hoyer lift, which sat in the corner.

“Absolutely not,” I said flatly. “I’ll hire a caregiver. That’s what a lot of people my age do, even the ones who have partners at home.”

“So you’d rather be taken care of by a total stranger?”

I shrugged. “If I have to be. I don’t like either option, but you’re right - I’m not gonna be able to take care of myself and Mason, at least not now. Maybe it’ll be different down the road, when he’s older and can do more for himself, but I’m definitely gonna need help.”

She was silent for almost a minute before she spoke again. “Then let me help you,” she said quietly. “Hire a caregiver, I mean. I can type up an ad if you tell me what you want to say. I can also help screen candidates and sit in on interviews, if you don’t mind. It’s important that we find a good fit, someone you can trust and feel comfortable with.”

“Thanks, Ma. That would be great,” I replied, smiling at her. “I’ll ask around here, too. The nurses and therapists may know someone who’s looking for that kind of work.”

We spent the rest of her visit drafting a “help wanted” ad for an in-home caregiver, my mom working on my laptop while I played with Mason. When he got fussy, she scooped him up and gathered her things to go, promising we would finish the next day.

I felt better after she left, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had taken one more step towards home... figuratively speaking.


Later that night, as I was lying in bed, my cell phone rang. When no one else was around, it became a race to try to answer it myself before it went to voicemail. I usually lost that race, but it was something I had been working on in occupational therapy. The phone was lying facedown on the bed tray nearby. I reached for it, poking my paralyzed right hand through the wrist strap on the back of the special phone case Ellis had ordered for me, which allowed me to hold the phone without using my fingers. Sometimes it took me a couple of tries to thread my hand through it, but this time, I got it on the first attempt. I lifted my arm, bringing the phone with it, and awkwardly turned it until I could see the screen. A few weeks ago, this would have been impossible, but I was gradually regaining some range of motion in my wrists. This made it much easier to manipulate objects with my hands.

Seeing AJ’s name on the screen, I dragged my left thumb across the slider at the bottom. It was a clumsy way of using the touchscreen, but it worked surprisingly well most of the time. This time, I was able to answer the call before the ringtone stopped. “Hello? AJ?” I said hopefully, raising the phone closer to my head.

“Hey, Kev!” I heard AJ’s voice reply. “Am I calling at a bad time? You sound flustered.”

I laughed. “No, you’re fine! I just answered the phone all by myself before it went to voicemail… which is a major accomplishment for me.”

“Wow, that’s awesome, man! Good for you!” I smiled at the enthusiasm in his voice. AJ would never fully understand what it was like to struggle with such simple tasks, but I appreciated his encouragement.

“Thanks. Hang on a second while I put you on speaker.” I lowered the phone a little so I could bump the speaker button with my thumb. “Okay… can you hear me now?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Good. So what’s up, brother?” I asked, as I set the phone back down on my tray. “Where you at right now?”

“Brisbane, mate,” AJ answered in an Australian accent that sounded pretty spot-on to my American ears.

“Ah… how are things down und-ah?” I replied, doing my best Crocodile Dundee impression. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as AJ’s.

“So far so good,” said AJ, dropping the accent. “We’ve been here a couple days already. We have our first show tonight.”

“What time is it there?” I knew Brisbane was on the east coast of Australia, but I was trying to remember how many hours ahead of us they were. We had traveled to so many different time zones, it was hard to keep track.

“It’s almost two in the afternoon. We just got back from a little birthday lunch for Brian.”

“Oh wow, I forgot it’s already the twentieth there. Tell him happy birthday for me. I’ll call him after the show tonight - tomorrow morning for me.”

“Will do. I’m not calling too late, am I? Are you already in bed?”

“I am, but I’m just relaxing, watching some TV while I try to get sleepy. It’s not even nine yet here, but there’s not much else to do in the evening - and once they put me in bed, I’m stuck here the rest of the night.”

“Ah, yeah… that sucks,” said AJ. “You better be watching Big Brother! I hate that I’m missing the new season.”

“Uh… sorry, but no.” I glanced up at the small TV mounted to my ceiling, where a bunch of red-faced, overweight people were running on treadmills. “I’m watching The Biggest Loser.”

He laughed. “Is that supposed to make you feel better about yourself? Like, you may be paralyzed, but at least you’re not fat?”

“Hell, I’d rather be fat,” I replied without hesitation. “I could lose weight, if that were the case. But I can’t fix my spinal cord, no matter how hard I work. I guess it is motivating in a way, though, watching these people transform their bodies week by week. Maybe that’s why I’ve gotten into it lately.”

“Yeah, that’s true. I didn’t think about it that way. But if you ever get bored with it, give Big Brother a try!”

“Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, knowing I would probably never get around to watching the show. “So anyway, what are you up to?”

“Not much, just hanging out in my hotel room for a couple hours before it’s time to head to the venue.”

I could picture him lying across the king-sized bed with his phone in his hand. AJ had always been the best at keeping in touch. He called me every few days when he was bored, and we would catch up for a while. It made me miss touring, hearing him talk about their itinerary and all the beautiful cities they were traveling to while I was stuck in my bed, staring at the beige stucco wall outside my window. But it was always nice to hear from him and know someone on the other side of the world was thinking of me.

“I wish there was a way you could watch Big Brother online or something,” I said.

“No shit. That would be amazing! Maybe someday...” AJ sighed. “So how was your day?”

“Same as every other day in here,” I said. “Not bad, though. My mom brought Mason by this afternoon, and we had a nice visit. I broke the news that I’m not moving back to Kentucky with her.”

“Oh, wow... How’d she take that?”

“She wasn’t happy about it at first, but she came around. Maybe she realized how much better off she’ll be not having to take care of her crippled adult son and a baby grandson.”

“Aw, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, if it was what you wanted. That’s what family’s for. My mom would be the same way if it were me. But I understand you not wanting to move back in with your mom.”

“Yeah. Only now I have to hire a full-time caregiver for when I get out of here.”

“Full-time? Does that mean they’ll have to, like, live with you?”

“Most likely, unless I hire multiple people to take different shifts. I’m gonna need help twenty-four hours a day. I have to be turned over every couple hours at night so I don’t get bed sores, and I need someone there in case Mason wakes up in the night or there’s an emergency or something. I can’t get out of bed and into a wheelchair by myself... so if the house burned down, we’d both be toast.”

“Damn,” AJ swore softly. “I didn’t think about that, but yeah… you definitely need someone.”

“Yeah… a nurse-slash-nanny. Hopefully I can find someone who fits that bill. I’ve also gotta figure out what kind of compensation I’m going to offer them. I wanna pay well enough to attract qualified people who will want to stick around, but not so much that I attract the wrong kind of people - you know, people who are just in it for the money.”

“Yeah, you don’t wanna be taken advantage of…” AJ paused. After a second, he added, “Maybe I should just move in with you for a while - when we get back to the States, I mean. I wouldn’t mind helping out with Mason and whatever you need help with. I’d even work for free.”

I assumed he was just joking around at first, but as he went on, I realized he was actually serious. “For real? Why would you wanna do that?”

“You saved my life when you sent me to rehab, Kev,” he said quietly. “I owe you one.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” I mumbled back, embarrassed. “I don’t want you giving up your life just to return a favor.”

“That’s not the only reason,” he insisted. “You broke my door down that day in Boston because you loved me and were just trying to do what was best for me, right? Well, that’s why I’m offering this - because you’re my brother, which makes Mason my nephew, and I wanna do what’s best for both of you. Not that I’d be the best choice of caregiver, mind you. I don’t know anything about being a nurse - or a nanny - but I’m willing to learn.”

For a few seconds, I was speechless. I was touched by his offer, but then I started thinking about all that it would entail and realized AJ had no idea what he was actually volunteering to do. “I appreciate that, brother, but I don’t think you really wanna be my full-time caregiver. You’d have to get up every two hours at night to roll me over, and besides getting me in and out of bed, you’d also have to help me in the bathroom. I can’t take a shower or get dressed by myself. Hell, I can’t even take a shit by myself or empty my own catheter bag. I need help with all of that… and I know how you feel about bodily fluids.”

AJ laughed, but I could tell it was forced. He clearly hadn’t thought this through before he offered, and now he was probably regretting it. “Okay, yeah, you’re right,” he admitted, surprising me with his honesty. “That’s maybe a little more than I can handle. But I could still move in with you and help with some of that. Then you could just hire a part-time caregiver to help with… the other stuff.”

I opened my mouth to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but instead, I heard myself say, “That would be amazing, brother… if you’re serious, I mean.”

“Of course I’m serious,” AJ replied without hesitation. “I wanna do whatever I can to help. I’m sure the other guys would be willing to help out, too, but it makes the most sense for it to be me. I mean, Brian already has a kid to look after. Howie just got married. And Nick… Nick’s a hot mess. He can barely take care of himself, let alone someone else. But I’m-”

“What’s going on with Nick?” I interrupted him. “I thought he was doing better. He lost all that weight last year; he looks good…”

“Well, he’s not,” AJ said bluntly. “He’s gone right back to his old bullshit. He’s been going out with Howie and getting wasted almost every night. Then he wakes up the next day hungover and moody as hell. He always manages to pull himself together by the time we go onstage, but it’s getting old. Now I know why you guys were so annoyed with me when I was at my worst. I feel like I’m watching myself from seven years ago, and it scares the shit out of me. I can see him spiraling out of control, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

What AJ was describing was exactly how I had felt watching him in the midst of his own downward spiral: helpless. I felt even more helpless now. I hated to hear that Nick wasn’t doing as well as he pretended to be. He hadn’t been in a good place when I had left the group, but I really thought he had gotten his life back together over the past year. “Have you talked to him?” I asked.

“I’ve tried, but he doesn’t see the problem. Tough love hasn’t helped either. If I try to be direct, it only makes him more defensive.”

“Well, what about talking to Howie? It sounds like he’s part of the problem, partying with Nick every night.”

AJ sighed. “Howie’s philosophy is that Nick’s gonna do what Nick wants either way, and he’d rather Nick drink with him than do it alone on the bus or in some sketchy bar with strangers. At least this way, he can keep an eye on him.”

I frowned. “He sounds like the kind of parents who let their teenagers drink at home so they won’t get in trouble for driving drunk.”

“Yeah… exactly. His heart’s in the right place, but he’s enabling him. And he and Rok don’t even know the full extent of it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

“I found drugs in Nick’s hotel room the night of your accident,” AJ confessed. “Cocaine… and ecstasy. I never told the other two; Nick begged me not to, and with everything else that was going on, I didn’t wanna dump that on them, too. But yeah… when he claimed to have gotten clean last year, he was lying.”

I sighed. “Damn... What are we gonna do? Do we need to stage another intervention? Send him off to rehab?” My mind was racing. “I know there’s not much I can do from here, but if you want me to try talking to him, I will. I’ll do whatever it takes to help him.”

“See?” said AJ, his voice lifting as if he were smiling. “Now that’s the kind of brotherly love I’ve been talking about. We’re a family, Kev. We take care of each other.”

I realized he was right. The five of us had always been there for each other, through good times and bad. Our talent may have taken us to the top, but it was our camaraderie that had kept us together, even when we were at rock bottom. That relationship was the main reason we had lasted as long as we had. The Backstreet Boys were a brotherhood, and while I had walked away from the band, I would never turn my back on one of my brothers. They obviously felt the same way about me, or AJ wouldn’t have offered to move in with me.

“As far as Nick’s concerned,” AJ went on, “I don’t think you talking to him is gonna help. Like I said, I’ve already tried, and it didn’t do any good. He’s not gonna listen to anything that sounds like a lecture. And if we all go at him at once, he’s gonna feel like we’re ganging up on him, which will only make him more defensive.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“I dunno… I need to give it some more thought.” AJ sighed. “Sorry to dump this on you, dude - as if you don’t have enough other stuff to worry about.”

“I don’t mind. I wanna know what’s going on,” I insisted. “Please don’t leave me out of the loop.”

“I won’t,” he promised. “I’ll keep you posted. I should probably let you go now though. We’ll talk later, okay?”

I rolled my eyes. Everyone always said they should “let me go” when they wanted to get off the phone, as if I had somewhere important to be or something to do besides lie in bed. But all I said back was, “Yeah, I don’t wanna keep you either. Tell the other fellas hi for me.”

“Will do. Love you, bro.”

“Love you, too. Break a leg tonight!” I felt another lump in my throat as I imagined the four of them getting ready to go onstage. I missed performing so much.

“Thanks! ‘Night, Kev.”

“Bye, AJ.”

After he hung up, I looked at my phone, feeling lonelier than I had before he had called. But AJ had given me a lot to think about. I thought about his offer to move in with me when I got out of rehab and he got home from the tour. Despite my assurances that it wasn’t necessary, I had to admit it might be nice to have him in the house - not just another stranger who was being paid to take care of me, but a close friend who genuinely wanted to help. It would be good for Mason to get to know one of his uncles better, too.

I also thought about Nick. When AJ had told me he was still doing drugs and getting drunk every night, it felt like the weight that had been lifted off my shoulders was being lowered back down again, even heavier than before. And this time, there was nothing I could do to get out from under it. I wanted to call Nick and try to talk some sense into him, but I knew AJ was right: he wouldn’t react well to that. So I resisted the temptation.

Still, I had a hard time falling asleep that night. I lay awake for hours, with neuropathic pain making my legs prickle and the weight of worry pressing down on me from above.