New Year's Magic

Photo by  Bram Naus

Photo by Bram Naus

New Year’s 2011 was rough. That holiday season marked a year since Nicholas had died. I think I spent a large percentage of that first year in shock. Plus, I was writing my first book about Dave Matthews Band, which necessitated me to be either on the road, interviewing, or writing. I submitted the manuscript in November 2010, which turned out to be just the wrong moment for the velocity of my life to come to a screeching halt.

As stillness set in, a relationship that had been limping along finally broke up once and for all. With no more book and no one else to focus on, there I found myself with nothing to distract myself from the dissipation of the cocoon of numbness that shock had provided. The one-year anniversaries rolled around: one year since Nicholas’ last birthday; one year since I talked to him on the phone last; and, finally, one year since his death. It turned out that my memory was crystal clear in this regard—I could walk myself through every day leading up to his death, almost as though it was all unfolding again. Only this time I knew it was coming, and I still couldn’t stop it. The holidays were rough, to say the least. I thought the worst of it would be done once Christmas was behind me, but I found that it felt very painful to think about New Year’s and heading into yet another year that Nicholas would never know. Another year that left him further in the rearview mirror.

New Year’s felt like a challenge, and I was determined to push though it, so I made my plans. The morning of New Year’s Eve, my friend and I went out for a boozy brunch. I came home, lightheaded from champagne and feeling a measure of relief. Drowsy from the champagne, I decided to take a nap before heading to a party at my friend’s house in Connecticut later that night. I laid down and, seemingly, out of nowhere, I found myself sobbing. The sort of sobbing that soaks your pillows and leaves you gasping for air. While I was grieving, the outburst was still strange. Weird as it might sound, I didn’t spend a lot of time crying after Nicholas died. The grief was much too hollow and deep for that. I certainly may have had a couple of good cries in that year, but the only ones I really remember are the day I found out he died and that New Year’s Eve a year later.

And then, mid-sob, a thought popped into my head: I should write a book about the New Kids on the Block. This might sound like the most random, non-sequitur thought in the world—because it was. My mind was firmly on my brother and the absence of him and then, all of a sudden, it was like a gear in my brain changed without warning and a new thought popped in unbidden. The thought jarred me so much that I immediately stopped crying and sat up.

I hadn’t really given this band much thought over the course of the past fifteen years. I loved them when I was a kid, but they had broken up long, long ago, and my life (and musical tastes) had moved on. I knew they had reunited in 2008, and I even went to see one of the reunion shows at my friends’ bidding. Even then, though, I hadn’t thought much about it beyond that night.

Still, the idea caught my full attention. I stood up and began pacing around my apartment, feeling a creative fire light up in my belly and quickly pick up to a full blaze. I felt energized and alive in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I’m sure it was the biggest emotional about-face I’ve ever experienced in my life. I flipped open my laptop and began pounding away at the keyboard. A couple of hours later, I forced myself out of my chair and into the car to head to Connecticut. The thoughts kept coming rapid-fire as I drove, and a book proposal seemed to magically and fully present itself as I drove down I-84. I pulled out my iPhone and started recording the words as they spilled out. I was simultaneously deeply content and also had a buzz in my belly—the first time I’d experienced either of those sensations since Nick’s death.

The ride seemed to pass in no time. I pulled up at my friend’s house, wishing that I could continue driving. As the champagne flowed and we all chatted through the night, the TV played Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in the background. At one point, I turned around and saw that the New Kids were the musical act in Times Square that night. What?! It seemed like it must be a sign. Excitedly, I told my friends about my book idea. Everyone laughed and rolled their eyes.

The next morning, as my friends slogged through their hangovers, I woke up bright-eyed and hopped into the car as quickly as I could to get back to my apartment and continue working. By the time the next working day arrived (January 4), I had completed a book proposal and hunted down the New Kids’ manager’s contact information, thanks to a friend who happened to respond that he knew him to a random Facebook post query.

I fired off the email to their manager that morning and sat back. I had broken a lot of “the rules” in my proposal, and purposefully didn’t send it to any of my publishing friends because I knew they would suggest I change the elements of it that weren’t standard. I had a feeling about my untraditional approach—based on nothing, really.

For as urgent as the process had seemed up to this point, now I was prepared to sit back waiting for a response for a long, long time and, very likely, to hear nothing at all. The DMB book had taken years to get off the ground, so I anticipated the same would be true this time.

Within less than an hour, their manager’s name popped up in my inbox. “We’re doing a press conference at Fenway on January 19,” he told me. “Come meet us there and we’ll talk.”

To say I was stunned is an understatement.

I went to the press conference. I talked to their manager. Not surprisingly, they had already received a ton of book pitches. It turns out that what made mine appeal to him was based precisely on the rules I had chosen to break. We quickly came to an agreement, my publisher exercised my book option from my DMB biography and, before you know it, I was on a boat with the New Kids and 3,000 of their nearest and dearest friends.

“They’re probably going to be assholes,” I told myself before I began interviewing and writing. These were, after all, pop stars. I was braced for whatever I found, and managed to go into the situation with no expectations.

What I found was beautiful. Five incredibly grounded, grateful, funny, and intelligent guys who had one hell of a story to tell and enough years under their belt to appreciate what they had. Most of all, they appreciated each other. What stood out to me the most was how deeply they had taken their lessons from the past to heart and applied them in the current day. I spent the next several months touring and interviewing the five of them. Sometimes, I invited my mom to come along with me. It turned out that the entire experience was an adventure—a wonderful callback to my childhood and the New Kids concerts my parents had taken my brother and I to as children. I remember looking over at my mom before one particular show at Fenway and realizing that, almost magically, something had begun to heal in us.

After gathering a ton of information in just a few months’ time, I sat down to write. Much as had been the case with the proposal, it was like the book was already there in my head, waiting to pour out. My fingers could barely keep up. I would look at the clock only to realize hours had passed by since I last paused. On many days, I wrote for eighteen hours straight, feeling as though time had wings. As I typed my final word, and closed my laptop with the same sort of satisfaction I would imagine someone who finishes a marathon might feel, I realized it was New Year’s Eve 2012. I finished writing the book a year to the day after that idea was planted in my head by … something. Whether it was my brother or grace, I don’t know—maybe some combination of the two.

Grief is not linear and it doesn’t heal all at once. But that experience took me a long way. When I wrote the DMB book in the immediate wake of my brother’s death, I was running and floating above it all. I was somewhere, but not there. I very vividly remember this split second at Alpine Pavillion in Wisconsin, where I leaned over a water fountain to take a sip of water and thought, “I am so fucked up right now—I’m in so much pain.”

The New Kids, on the other hand, were like a salve. I was there. I was connecting. I was alive. I was simultaneously grounded and lifted by the rawness and perspective of these guys. They were real, and I was able to be real with them. I wasn’t okay every moment and, in those moments, I was able to put voice to that without being embarrassed or feeling like I had to bury my emotional state. Being around the music and the spectacle and the joy of it all transported me back to my childhood with my brother. Before that, all of my memories of the past were heavy and painful—these memories sparked joy and a happy nostalgia. One of Nicholas’ defining features is that he was a musician and, indeed, his spirit seemed to live on through this musical experience.

It wasn’t until I was near the end of writing the book that I realized that on that same, white, bright, snowy morning when I found out my brother had died, the New Kids were less than a mile away from my apartment, rehearsing for their show at The House of Blues later that night. They were just across the street from where we would have our first meeting nearly a year later. It just took me a while to get there.