Someone watching a player nagivate Rainbow Road may think, "Oh...that doesn't look that hard. I could do that." In the same way, many people seem to think that Rainbows make life after loss all better - that they are the magical fix to a broken heart. While Piper has indeed been very healing to me, her existence doesn't make the difficulty of living without Kenley just go away. Like the colored turtle shells that send Mario's race car careening off course, there are a multitude of unexpected issues that arise when parenting a Rainbow. Some that even send us over the edge.
Turtle Shell: When you're holding your infant on a park bench, how to you answer the kind little old lady who asks you "Is this your first?". Do you lie? Do you say yes and sit there while she goes on and on about the joys of parenthood you should be experiencing for the second time? Do you carry on a conversation while your heart is screaming out in betrayal? Do you vaguely tell the truth, give a short "No", and hope the conversation doesn't go from there? Or, do you tell this well-meaning stranger about your first baby - the one who died? Do you sit there and watch her warm eyes shrink into her skull with uncomfortableness as she wishes she'd never asked? No matter what plan you have, it will never go the way you want in that moment, and more often than not, it's a sure-fire day ruiner.
Turtle Shell: You buy your Rainbow "Little Sister" t-shirts because she is one - and you feel that it's a nice tribute to your firstborn. But, you only dress her in them when you're not going out - or when you're headed to a remembrance event because you're scared of the conversations that might occur otherwise. "Where's your big sister?" And you feel terrible because you can't bring yourself to be comfortable with being so "in the world" about the fact you have more children. In the morning when you're dressing your Rainbow, you see that Little Sister t-shirt sitting in the drawer. You want to put it on her, but you don't because you know you have errands to run that day and you're just not in the mood for what might happen.
Turtle Shell: You see siblings at the mall. A big sister holding her little sister's hand. Their age difference is similar to that of your two and you instantly wonder what that would be like. What a wonderful relationship they would have had. Of course, they would have fought - all sisters do - but they would have loved and cared for each other like no one else. They would have made mud-pies in the backyard and constructed blanket forts in the living room. They would have been each other's partner in crime. You can hear their giggles now, coming from the back of the house, as they pull each other in to their hilarious private jokes. Every time you see siblings, you think of this. You think about all the things your Rainbow is missing out on - and all of the things your firstborn never got to have. The sadness over this missed relationship eats at you like acid, creating more holes in your already falling apart heart.
Turtle Shell: You watch your Rainbow grow. Every day, you are amazed by her more and more. From her first breath to her first step to her first day at school, you celebrate each milestone full of so much love. You are constantly thrown off guard by how much you love her - by how your heart skips a beat when you see her smile. You hold her in your arms, nuzzle her hair, wrap her little hand around your fingers, and you can't believe how lucky you are to have such a wonderful child. And then you remember why you do - and it rips you in half. This beautiful and fantastic little human would never have existed had her big sister lived. Every song she sings, every word she says, every picture she draws is because her sister died.
Turtle Shell with Spikes: The dichotomy is torture - and it's unavoidable. You can't simply forget this reality. This life exists because another does not. It is hands-down the hardest part about parenting a rainbow. Every. Single. Moment. is a reminder of what will never get to be. And, how do you find peace in being grateful for your rainbow when you know the price you had to pay? Even though you know in your heart of hearts you love your children equally, the only way to verbalize this struggle is to paint one life more visible than the other, which is so unfair. You know your Rainbow deserves more than to live in her sister's shadow. You are determined to keep her free of that - yet the shadow exists because only one of your children is still alive. And your firstborn deserves to be remembered and honored, but a memory is hard to hold when it's coated in grief. Some days, this duality seems impossible to maintain.
Rainbow Road is a hard course to navigate. On top of "regular" parenting challenges, you also have the challenge of finding that balance between two worlds. You have grief complicated with joy. Sadness mixed in with excitement. Pain swirled with hope. You are a walking contradiction, and no one would ever really know unless you told them. You do the best you can every day. You change diapers. You potty train. You cook vegetables. You wipe vegetables off the floor. You strap her into her car seat. You lay her down for her nap. Then, you look at her sister's urn. You touch the necklace with her initial. You lean into the ache she left behind and you wonder how you've managed to get through another day without both of your children.
Parenting is never easy. Clearly, parents who have never lost a child don't have it easy by any means, but there is an added level of difficulty that comes with parenting after loss. It's a track with the railings removed - where a slight spin out of control can send us straight over the edge and back into the darkness. A glance over at two girls laughing can be enough to shoot me into a cloud of grief for the rest of the day. A flickering thought of whether or not Kenley would also be able to sing her ABC's before she was two like her little sister will spin me around in circles of sorrow for hours.
There are some days when I think to myself, "I just can't do this." I can't be a parent to both of them. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. I am tired of hitting those shells every day. I am tired of feeling I am leaving out Kenley while parenting Piper. I write blog posts and raise awareness and admin Facebook groups just so I can feel like her life means something, and then, I get caught up in the world of loss instead. I can't be in two places at once, and yet I am - I have to be. And I feel so very unbalanced all the time.
There are more cars than people realize on Rainbow Road. Not everyone will tell you the child you see is a Rainbow. Not all loss is as visible and vocal as mine. We all zoom around this track the best we can. Sometimes we see those turtle shells in time to avoid them - and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we can keep ourselves from plummeting over the edge, and sometimes we can't. There's really no solution. Having a Rainbow is hard. I don't say this for sympathy, but for understanding. I want you to know what a difficult daily struggle it really is - how it's not as cut and dry as some may want it to be.
Life completely and irrevocably changes after loss. Nothing is the same. Especially parenting.
Safe Travels to all my fellow drivers on Rainbow Road. May your day today be free of shells...or at least the next few minutes.