Friday night I crawled into bed with my guy, our biggest problem in the world being the spotty internet service keeping us from diving into whatever crap show we’d chosen to zone out on. My phone buzzed on the nightstand, I reached over and the caller ID launched me to a seated position. It read “Whitney (Dude’s Mom)”. First Name (Child’s Name/parent)…that’s how they’re all in my phone…the families I serve. I knew. “Whitney?” Through sobs I made out what she didn’t need to say…”can you get here now?”. I was immediately out the door…camera bag in hand, lump in throat, stomach in knots. As I approached the bridge I frantically dug into my bag for my credit card. 6 dollars…the price of my admission to a child’s final moments. As I handed my card over I breathed in so deeply it felt as though the oxygen would crush my skull, I continued this breath in silence…the only sounds coming from Google map directing me even though I know the way to Stanford.

I become someone else on these drives. I have to. Me…”human me” cannot do this work. I become a vessel of sorts, void of any thought because what I’m about to walk into I can only do if I pretend I am not real. If I’m not real then maybe it isn’t either. Maybe I fell asleep at 11:22 as opposed to answering my phone. Maybe this is all a dream. I pull into the almost abandoned garage, I hit the cold metal button in the elevator, I hand my ID over to security sanitizing my hands as I wait and confirm that “yes I am feeling well today”, I press the visitor badge which shows a long haired version of myself to my shirt as the clap of my sandals echo through the empty lobby…”You are not real, this is not real.” My own voice repeats this in my head as I make my way to the CVICU, I know I’m lying but I know it’s for my own good. As I approach the doors they are already open, the automatic closure slowly happening behind the last person to enter…I slide through them and audibly whisper…

“You are not real, this is not real.”

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The moment I stepped in the room I knew I wasn’t called for my camera…capturing would be secondary. I’d only met Whitney briefly twice before but all of her family was en route scattered on a stretch of highway between Oregon and Palo Alto…I was the only person she knew for miles. Staying tucked in the background and documenting like I usually do didn’t feel right, I was there to be in the moment with her. I set my bag down and placed my hands on her back and legs as she was curled up against him. I passed my palms over her forehead as tears streamed down her face soaking her sons hair. For hours I rubbed and squeezed and massaged keeping cadence with her breath from her shoulders to her ankles…internally pleading that some of her pain would be taken…that it could somehow be transferred into me through my fingertips if I just kept going. It felt as though I was present for a birth…the rawness, the intimacy, the uncertainty, her excruciating pain and guttural sobs. Unlike birth this would not end in life… this was a labor…a labor of loss. I only left her side in brief increments …freezing time with my camera and putting it down as soon as my hands felt called back to her. Shortly after her Dad arrived I decided to leave, to pass her and these moments with Dominic off to family. I regret that decision now, I wish I’d stayed…for her or for me I’m not really sure.

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As I drove back over the bridge my mantra got me home “You are not real, this is not real.” I was in survival mode, forcing my mind to believe it was all imaginary…that I’d never left my bed, that I’d simply drifted off to sleep and into a nightmare as the Internet buffered. I walked into the bedroom around 4am, Jake heard me and launched into a seated position the same way I had earlier when my phone rang and with that I could no longer deny reality, I crumbled, it wasn’t a dream.

I am real. It was real. And he's gone.

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I am gutted…broken for her. For her other children. For her family. For every person Dominic undoubtedly touched during his 13 years. I wish I could somehow take their pain, make this better/easier/make believe. I have watched on social media as her community has taken action…creating fundraisers for funeral expenses, meal trains and offers of support. I applaud you all and BEG you to keep going. Pray…she is an avid believer and because of this will feel the power behind your prayers. Show up on her doorstep even if you aren’t sure you’ll be invited in. Call her without the expectation of an answer. Provide the help that she will not ask for. Send that text. Write that card. Mow their lawn. Make that casserole. Say. His. Name.

Photos of Whitney Leigh Fitzgerald by: Alissa Mcdonald, The Mark Makers

For the countless that have asked how they may support:

Information & links to donate or purchase shirts to help with funeral expenses for Whitney & family can be found on Whole Heart Hero or click on the GoFund me link below.