In a photo taken on his first birthday, Whitaker Weinburger sits in a high chair, his bare chest streaked with chocolate from a cupcake that his older sister holds up to his mouth.
“He was still eating then,” his mother, Erin Weinburger, recalls.
She refers to that moment as “before the beginning.”
Weeks after that picture was snapped, she took the 1-year-old for a blood test to find out whether he shared his older sister’s tree nut allergy. Soon after came a nighttime call from Whitaker’s pediatrician, asking whether he was bleeding, because his results seemed off. He wasn’t, so the family scheduled a follow-up appointment.
Two days later, before they could get to that appointment, Whitaker stopped moving and his parents rushed him to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.
There, he received a blood transfusion, and doctors eventually discovered what was wrong. They diagnosed Stage 4 neuroblastoma after detecting cancer on his adrenal gland.
“It was awful,” Erin recalls of that day. She was alone when she found out. She works as a nanny, and her husband, Seth Weinburger, is a judicial assistant for a federal judge. That day, he was out of town officiating at a family wedding, so she waited to tell him.
“It was awful,” she says again before settling on a different word. “It was terrifying.”
Don’t worry. This is not a story about loss, at least not entirely. The Weinburger family has lost plenty — sleep, work and the ability to comfortably dismiss a stomachache as just a stomachache.
This column is about what the last three years have been like for them. It’s about looking closely at what Whitaker has gone through to better understand what we are seeing when photos of him pop up on our social media feeds in about two weeks — showing the epic surprise his parents, neighbors and strangers are planning for him. On Sept. 11, when he turns 4, Whitaker will walk out of his Northern Virginia home and find his neighborhood filled with yellow cars, crossing guards in costumes and people cheering for a boy they have never met.
The pictures taken of him that day, and there will be plenty, will show him for the first time healthy on his birthday.
Whitaker’s mother shared with me more than 60 pictures the family has taken of him in the past three years. Some are blurry. Others are crisp but hard to look at for other reasons. In those first birthday photos, he is smiling and his blond hair juts out in curls behind his ears. His parents didn’t plan a party because they could tell, even then, he wasn’t feeling well.
In later photos, he lies in a hospital bed, his tiny body tucked under a tangle of tubes. His curls are gone along with the rest of his hair.
The toddler received a double stem cell transplant, which his mother explains required him to twice receive a nearly lethal dose of chemotherapy drugs before his own harvested stem cells were placed back into his body to help heal him.
One photo shows a table topped with 12 syringes. They represent the morning meds he was taking at one point.
Photos taken on his second birthday show him sitting at home in a booster seat, sampling a dollop of green icing before bringing the entire cupcake to his mouth. He was between treatments and felt crummy but still managed to participate in the celebration.
For his third birthday, there are no photos. His mother couldn’t find any.
“I think we were just breathing,” she explains.
Whitaker’s scans had just come back, and they showed the treatments had worked. Only one small, potentially concerning spot shows up now on his scans, and doctors are monitoring it as a precaution.
He is now healthy enough to start preschool in September. His elementary school, Charles Barrett, is in walking distance of the family’s home in Alexandria — which brings us to those yellow cars.
Whitaker loves the Transformer Bumblebee and thinks that a yellow Camaro parked down an alleyway off the family’s street is the famous character. “Can we go the Bumblebee way?” he asks each time his family drives somewhere. Because of that, his father came up with the idea of asking their neighbor to park in front of their house on Whitaker’s birthday so he could see the car on the walk to school. His mother says she then thought, “Why not try to get a bunch of them?”
She posted a call-out for people with yellow cars on a private Facebook group for moms in her neighborhood. Then this happened: More and more people started sharing it. WJLA (Channel 7) ran a story about it. And soon, Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne and a deputy showed up at the family’s house to play with Whitaker and, in secret, talk to his parents about logistics. Erin says the sheriff’s office has offered to handle traffic control that day.
So far, about 50 people have committed to bring their yellow cars. Neighbors have offered to decorate their homes. And the school crossing guards plan to wear Bumblebee costumes.
“It’s going to be incredible,” Erin says. Whitaker’s 9-year-old sister, Lakeland, has been in on the planning and is especially excited, Erin says. “It’s great for her to see this beautiful part of the world. She’s old enough to grasp this is a whole bunch of strangers that are doing something wonderful for a little boy and his family.”
Jeremy Levy, who is the voice of Bumblebee for the cartoon “Transformers: Cyberverse,” has also contacted the family, and Paramount Pictures, which produces the Transformer movies, sent 10 boxes of toys to the family’s house. They plan to donate many “because no child needs 10 boxes of Transformers.”
Erin say the family feels immensely grateful. She has also thought about why her request resonated with so many people.
“I think the idea of a yellow car, it’s a simple idea,” she says. “It costs time, which is valuable. But it doesn’t cost anything to brighten up a 4-year-old who has gone through hell.”
The treatments caused her son to lose some of his hearing and he now wears hearing aids. He also undergoes scans every three months. His next one will take place 12 days after his birthday.
“I think the more time that passes, the more we focus on the future instead of what might have happened,” she says. “In the beginning, you can’t help but plan a funeral for your kid because it’s there, there’s a chance he’s not going to get through this.”
On his birthday, the family plans to wake up, have a normal morning and step outside at 7:20 a.m. to make the walk to the school.
They expect there might be many cameras, from the media and strangers, pointed at Whitaker.
His mother hopes this is what those photos of his fourth birthday capture:
“I hope a lot of people come,” she says. “I hope that all those people that come connect with each other, too, because they’re seeing something great. They’re seeing something great in each other. I also want them to see this survivor, this kid who is smiling and healthy and happy. And I want him to feel loved and like he’s always got a circle around him. No matter what the future holds, he’s loved.”
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