I kneel down. Penny and William are both in front of me on the couch. Both look a little puzzled by my tears. I clasp their hands. “Happy tears. Happy tears,” I say.
It is Saturday night. A few hours before my happy tears, Peter and I are sitting in church for a special service to commemorate the 125th anniversary of our church’s founding. And although I am grateful for the chance to learn more about the history of this place, I am also thinking about Penny for most of the service.
It starts with a hymn. As I am singing, the memories swell. Memories of the time, seven years earlier, when we chose this same hymn to announce our belated celebration of our daughter’s birth. Ponder anew what the Almighty can do… I sing, remembering back to those days when I couldn’t believe that God would do great things in Penny’s life.
And then, the first Scripture reading is Psalm 1, the passage I have prayed sporadically for Penny throughout her life. That she would flourish. That she would grow. That she would be one who thrives on the love of the Lord.
I think back to the week we’ve just had. A week in which Penny’s ballet teacher said, “The thing about Penny is that she’s very cute. So adults might think she can’t do things when really she can. But she’s also very capable. So I ask the same things of her as I do of the others. And she can do it.” A week after her teachers and therapists gathered to commend her for hard work, friendship, and academic skills. A week in which Penny pursued her goal of being able to do a cartwheel. A week in which she hugged her best friend and ordered a cheeseburger in a restaurant (“Medium rare, please. No pickles, no onions.”) and ate the whole thing. A week in which she laughed and cried and prayed and grew up one more incremental step.
It was also a week in which I had a long talk with a new mother of a baby with Down syndrome. Where I spent a little under an hour gushing about my daughter and about how it wasn’t just going to be okay. It was going to be beautiful. Wonderful. Life-changing in the yes-that-sucked-but-I-got-through-it way but ALSO in the I-would-never-ever-ever-give-this-up-because-it’s-so-amazing way.
It’s not just that we’ve come to terms with having a daughter with Down syndrome. It’s that we’ve fallen in love over and over again.
At the end of the church service, we head down to the nursery. “Penny was mean to Lily,” William says, as we scramble to get coats on and clean up the playspace.
“What?” my head whips around. Lily is a toddler with white blonde hair. We are friends with her family. Penny loves her. What happened?
The teenage babysitter nods apologetically. “And she colored on the wall. And she left the room repeatedly.”
Penny says, “I already said sorry.”
As we haul the kids to the car, the gratitude and wonder I had felt at the service is seeping into the cold night, replaced with disappointment and anger. But I don’t say anything yet. There’s the nagging question of why I spent most of that service thinking about Penny, about my gratitude for her, about the unexpected ways God has worked in me through her.
When we get home, Peter takes William and Marilee away. I sit with Penny. “Sweetie, I need to understand what happened.”
She gives me a blank stare. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Kiddo. I’m not mad. I still love you very much.”
“You do?” She looks genuinely amazed.
“I do. I do again and again. I love you. I just want to try to understand what happened.”
“Mom, I was trying to help Lily. She fell down but I wasn’t trying to hurt her.”
“What about the coloring?”
“I was trying to draw a star on the Christmas tree.” I think back to the room, where a white piece of paper was taped to the wall. Penny’s motor skills are such that staying within the lines of the paper was probably a serious challenge.
“And I didn’t run out of the room. There was one time I stood in the hallway because I was waiting for William to come back from the bathroom. And then I went to the bathroom. And I took Marilee too but then she didn’t need to go.”
And I believe her. I believe that the babysitter saw Penny hurting a young child, scribbling on the walls, and running away. And I believe that not one of those things really happened. My disappointment was like a stone in my heart, with a little chink of possibility offered through the Psalm and the hymn during the service. But Penny’s explanation cracks the stone right open.
William comes back into the room.
“Penny, can I ask William about what happened too, just in case you forgot something?”
William corroborates everything she has said.
Penny goes on to write a letter of apology to Lily and to the babysitter, because even if she didn’t mean to, she did pull Lily to the floor and she did leave crayon marks on the wall.
And I kneel in front of them both, these gifts I have been given, and I tell Penny about how I was thinking of her during church today. I tell her about the reminder that once I was sad and scared because she had Down syndrome and now I couldn’t be more thankful for her.