After losing his 13-year-old son to suicide, David James, BA ’88, is spreading hope, one hand-knitted heart at a time.
By Rose Cahalan
David James, BA ’88, was at a mall near his home in the Woodlands recently when he left a small crocheted heart on top of a gumball dispenser. Sturdily built, with a clean-shaven head and a no-bullshit stare, James, 49, does not look like the sort of person you’d expect to gravitate toward either fiber crafts or candy machines. But there he was, using a loop of yarn to tie the red handmade heart on the metal knob above the change slot. The yarn tethered the heart to a slip of paper printed with a message. He arranged it just so, then stepped back into the crowd of shoppers and waited. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this. “I like to stand back and watch,” David says.
Soon a little girl ran up to the gumball machine and grabbed the heart. She turned it over in her hands with a puzzled look, then showed it to her mother. They walked on. “Maybe they looked it up online later,” David says. “Or maybe that was it, just that moment.”
The message on the heart was “Be kind to yourself — #PeytonHeartProject.” At home, David has a cardboard box filled with dozens of hearts with similarly hopeful words, like “The best is yet to be,” “Kindness matters,” and “Your journey will be worth it.” He leaves them in grocery store aisles and on park benches. Every time he eats at a restaurant, he makes sure to slip one in with the check.
If you want to understand why David does this, you have to know about his son, Peyton. A gangly, red-headed 13-year-old with freckles and piercing blue eyes, Peyton loved animals, especially his corgi, Earl. Some mornings his father liked to wake him by releasing the dog into his son’s bedroom, where it would jump on the bed, lick his face, and make him laugh and laugh. Peyton dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, and he knew that the top vet school in the state was at Texas A&M. “Sorry, dad,” he’d tease his father, a proud Longhorn. “Don’t be mad, but I might be an Aggie.”
Peyton also loved to watch Doctor Who, My Little Pony, and Japanese anime. He played video games, told corny jokes, and escaped into science-fiction and fantasy novels. In the harsh middle-school ecosystem, where kids take shelter in cliques, he was an outsider. Others found their tribe in sports, music, or theater; Peyton was mostly on his own. That made him a target for relentless bullying. One day, someone would make fun of his yellow teeth, a side effect of being born eight weeks too early; the next, he’d be teased for his red hair and freckles, or for his unabashed love of learning. “The last straw,” David says, “was when he was in the cafeteria and a kid started harassing him for reading a book.”
Peyton complained to teachers and principals about the bullying, but nothing changed. One day, he told his mother, “I should just kill myself.” She took him to a hospital and he started counseling and medication for depression and anxiety. It seemed to be helping, but on Oct. 8, 2014, he hanged himself from a ceiling fan in his bedroom.
For five days, Peyton clung to life at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. David remembers that week as an awful blur punctuated by small moments of kindness. A social worker helped secure a room at the Ronald McDonald House next to the hospital so Peyton’s family could stay by his side. When they walked in, a volunteer handed each relative a small bag of essentials, including a toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, and soap. “That little baggie really helped,” David remembers. “I hadn’t showered in days or brought anything from home when we rushed to the hospital.”
Peyton died on Oct. 13. Less than a month later, David started Products for Peyton, a campaign to collect travel-sized toiletries for the Ronald McDonald House. Within weeks, family, friends, and strangers had helped him donate more than 120 boxes of items to the house’s locations in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Galveston.
As he grieved, David turned to social media to tell his son’s story. Facebook was a way to connect with other families affected by suicide, as well as mental-health advocates and volunteers. That’s how he met the Kubin women: Jill and her daughters Julia, 15, and Emily, 20, who live in Morristown, New Jersey. All three liked to volunteer — Julia started a campaign where she stood on the street holding up signs with positive messages, and Emily has collected nearly 20,000 knitted and crocheted hats for the homeless. As David and Jill exchanged Facebook messages, Jill saw a way to combine her daughter’s projects. Would David mind if she distributed handmade hearts with positive messages in his son’s memory? He was moved by the gesture. “I call them my angels in New Jersey,” he says.
Since its official launch this summer, the Peyton Heart Project has scattered tens of thousands of handmade hearts around the globe. Volunteers have left hearts as far away as Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland, and more than 40 other countries. Search the hashtag #PeytonHeartProject and a constant stream of positivity pops up.
A teenager in the Netherlands wrote that she, too, had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. “To find this heart during a shitty day at work made an impact,” she said.
A woman in the Woodlands, Texas, wrote, “I just found this sweet heart as I’m heading into the hospital. It made me smile as I’m really scared right now.”
“What started off as a bad, crazy morning quickly turned around after receiving this,” wrote another Instagram user, who said she found a heart on her car.
David says the warm reception gives him hope. But he also speaks candidly about his grief. “For myself personally, my life…” He trails off. “I don’t want to say it sucks, but it’ll never be the same.”
He likes his job teaching high-school English and coaching a swim team, but it can still be hard to get out of bed. “Other times it’ll catch me when I’m at work,” David says. “I’ve had to ask another teacher to cover my classes so I can sit in the coaches’ office and cry.” Like his son, he’s dealt with clinical depression and anxiety for much of his life.
David is so open about these tough issues because he believes it’s the only way things will ever change. He rattles off the statistics: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths aged 10–24, and more than 5,400 middle-school and high-school-aged teens attempt suicide each day.
“I never want another parent to go through this,” he says. “I never, never want another child to get to the point where taking their life is a viable option for dealing with the pain. That’s why I’m doing this. And I’m not going to stop.”
The Alcalde is the official publication of the Texas Exes, the University of Texas at Austin alumni association. Find more stories at alcalde.texasexes.org.