Starts & Stops

For grieving father, Zakim becomes a beacon

The Zakim Bridge lit up in gold last week to bring awareness to National Childhood Cancer month.
The Zakim Bridge lit up in gold last week to bring awareness to National Childhood Cancer month.(Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe)

It’s been just over a year since the state Department of Transportation decided to install new lights on the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge, allowing one of Boston’s newest landmarks to shine a brighter blue — and, on special occasions, to transform colors.

Since then, the lights have been in regular use. In addition to celebrating holidays and cheering on playoff runs by the Celtics, Patriots, and Bruins, they have brought awareness to issues like autism, eco-friendliness, and gun violence — and offered blue and yellow rays of comfort after this year’s Boston Marathon.

But if you drove on the bridge this past week, you may have noticed a new shade illuminating the bridge’s cables: gold.

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Tony Stoddard, a resident of Sandown, N.H., contacted MassDOT a few months ago, asking if the bridge lights could shine gold from Sept. 1 to 7, in honor of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

Stoddard, 51, is trying to raise awareness in memory of his son Cole, who died last year at the age of 5 after being diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that primarily affects children.

The tumor started in Cole’s abdomen, and spread through his nerves and bones, which made for lengthier and lengthier stays at Tufts Medical Center as doctors tried to keep the disease at bay.

And during those tough times, he said, the sight of Zakim Bridge caused his stomach to sink.

“We’d make trips to Boston, and crossing over the bridge, we knew our son was going to be in the hospital for a week, or two weeks, or a month,” Stoddard said. “It just hurt me to see the bridge.”

Since Cole’s death, he said, that sinking feeling hasn’t gone away.

“Every time I’d watch TV, I’d see the news and they’d show a shot of Zakim Bridge or the Prudential Center,” a view he often saw from the hospital window, Stoddard said. “And every time, it broke my heart.”

“They were painful symbols,” he continued, “and I wanted to turn it into something more positive.”

Stoddard said little is known about the disease that killed his son, largely because it’s such a rare form of cancer that receives only a tiny share of federal cancer research funding. Bringing gold to streets, buildings, clothes, and banners, he said, is his way of rallying for more research funding.

Apparently booking light time on the Zakim is as easy as an e-mail: Stoddard sent a message to MassDOT about the possibility of changing the bridge’s color to honor his son and other children with cancer, and agency officials immediately said yes.

MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie said officials have been receiving an increasing number of requests for special Zakim lighting nights. In just the next few weeks, the bridge will shine red for blood cancer awareness, teal for ovarian cancer awareness and the Facial Pain Research Foundation, and pink for breast cancer awareness.

“We have been able to accommodate these requests as best as possible and on a first-come basis,” Lavoie said. “We find that the requesters are very gracious as we do our best to work around any overlap.”

Stoddard, his wife, and their two surviving children came to Boston last Sunday to see the lights. This time, he said, crossing the Zakim “felt like seeing two beacons of hope.”

“A week before my son passed away, he looked at me and he said he wasn’t going to be growing up,” Stoddard recalled. “And I said, ‘Someday, you’re going to do something big.’ ”

Stoddard continued, “This is the big thing I’m doing for him.”

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