Eight years ago, my husband’s brother called to tell us that his fourth child had been born. The newest little Van Loon had Down Syndrome. My prayers for the family were born out of what I imagined that parents Dan and Maribeth were experiencing: the joy of getting to know the gift of their son was blended with unpredictable doses of shock, grief and concern for his physical health as he had a heart defect typical of the syndrome. They were experienced parents and people of deep faith, but they were beginning a very different kind of parenting journey the day Willem was born. Today, their son is thriving, and they can’t imagine their family without him. Nor can I.
Author Amy Julia Becker’s first child, Penny, was born with Down Syndrome. In A Good And Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations and a Little Girl Named Penny (Bethany, 2011) is a shimmering, transparent look at her own journey through joy shock, grief and concern for Penny’s health. Becker had lived a life of blessing and privilege. She’d attended boarding school before heading to Princeton. She married her high school sweetheart Peter, and he took at position an exclusive prep school while she headed to Princeton’s seminary. Penny’s birth into this intellectual and achievement-rich environment moved Becker to consider the ways she’d thought about intelligence. She wrote, “I considered the words used to describe intelligence. Terms associated with light and precision: bright, brilliant, sharp, smart. Their converse: dull, faded, drab. But Penny’s eyes were full of light and her face and body full of life and movement.”
Penny served as Becker’s tutor as the parents grieved their own expectations, dealt with the responses of the people in their world, and learned to parent their little girl. Becker’s journal entries from the first couple of years of Penny’s life form the foundation of this important book, as she grapples with both first-time parent issues as well as the bigger questions that emerge from Penny’s diagnosis. Her contemplative, accessible writing takes us deep into the truth that Penny’s existence is not a biological error, but a good and perfect gift:
One of the things that Penny’s life has shown me so far is how different God’s values are from my values, and from many of our culture’s values. Going back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for a minute, I have realized in the past few months that I am very impressed by education, by the ability to be articulate and communicate clearly. I don’t think it’s bad, in and of itself, for me to be impressed by these things, yet it makes me ask myself whether I am more impressed by good speeches and college degrees than I am by love…We were told early on that we could count on two things: that she would have delays in her physical development, and that she would have some degree of cognitive impairment. I’m starting to realize that, for some reason, her extra chromosome is not only associated with delays and impairments. It is also associated with sweetness, joy, wonder, patience, and love.
Though this memoir has a natural audience among those who work with or are parents of special needs children, I believe A Good And Perfect Gift should be on the reading list of every parent, no matter what the age or I.Q of their kids. Well-written memoirs are meant to help us understand something new about our world and/or ourselves. Becker’s book does both. Highly, highly recommended.
* I received a review copy of the book from the publisher