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What 52 bandannas say about my late son’s life

They were so much more than just headbands or neckerchiefs.

Illustration by Nora Holland/Images from Adobe Stock

We discovered the patterned cotton squares scattered everywhere among our son’s possessions as we endured the painful task of sorting through his belongings after his death. They turned up in closets, under beds, in backpacks, drawers, and in his treasured camera bag. Reds, greens, blues—some almost new, others worn and faded. Fifty-two in all. I washed and folded them. Put them away.

What do you do with so many bright, sad reminders? Our daughter’s response: Make them into a quilt. She undertook the project, creating a beautiful, loving tribute. She chose the Flying Geese pattern, a nature theme to honor her outdoors-loving brother. It has hung for years on the wall of our family room, where it keeps him close.


The bandannas came into David’s life when, at 16, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. For 30 years it was an unpredictable situation, with long periods of excellent health interrupted by the need for more surgery or procedures that always required shaving his head. Finding hats uncomfortable, he adopted the squares as his choice of headgear.

In the welcome reprieves from illness they came in handy as headbands, neckerchiefs, and brow moppers when he chopped wood, shoveled snow, built furniture, or went biking, hiking, or camping. He also dabbled in photography, making frequent train trips to Harvard Square and spending hours chatting with street and subway musicians who happily posed for him.

In the days of bringing rolls of film to the drugstore to be developed into snapshots, we filled shoe boxes and albums with photographs of the various subjects he shot: a variety of people, funny bumper stickers, odd license plates, unusual doorways, strange clouds, amazing sunsets, and charming children, including Claudia, his niece and favorite subject. She was 16 when “Uncle Dave” died.

During the more difficult times I’d wonder what David was thinking, especially when facing another surgical hurdle. I sometimes asked if he would like to talk to a counselor or therapist and usually got a firm “no.” I suspect his therapy came in great part from the phone calls and visits from high school friends during the early years of his illness. They came to the hospital bearing such great quantities of treats—chips, cookies, M&Ms spilling over his bed—that the nurses dubbed him JFK, the Junk Food King. I marveled at the loyalty and concern these youngsters showed. The staff never curtailed the noise and laughter coming from his room. They knew good medicine when they saw it.


David’s favorite TV show was M*A*S*H. His surgeon shook his head when he found David watching it—Wasn’t there enough sickness and pain around him already? But I think David felt a camaraderie with the young soldiers in the program and identified with their suffering, even though his was a very different experience. And his own marvelous sense of humor responded to the idea of laughter in dire circumstances.

Sometimes when I look at the quilt I remember the day in the ICU when he was still in his teens and recovering from another trip to the operating room. He gave me a riddle and asked me not to try to figure it out until I got home. It was four letters, DBNP. Hours later I startled my husband by shouting “I’ve got it!” It was Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther, whose 17-year-old son had died of a brain tumor, the book’s title inspired by the moving John Donne poem. I knew that David had read the book and I felt certain he must be thinking of the story and its outcome.


At that point the phone rang. It was his nurse with a message: David knew I had figured it out by now and wanted me to know that his story would not end that way. It didn’t.

Thanks to his sister, his story still goes on in 52 ways, as long as those geese keep flying.

Lucia Hotton is a writer in South Weymouth. Her late husband, Peter Hotton, was the Globe’s longtime “Handyman on Call” columnist. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.