Who wears red, knee-high boots with spandex to the gym?  I thought last week while rounding the track at the YMCA.

The girl a few paces ahead of me walked jauntily as she sauntered around a curve, shoulder-length hair swaying to the rhythmic swish-swish-swish of her sparkling vinyl boots. The brown hair and short stature seemed familiar, and I remembered a girl leaning against the check-in counter when I’d slid my membership card through the electronic scanner. As I passed her on the track, I looked over my shoulder. Yes, it was the same girl. One glance at her narrowed eyes and I’d recognized the face of someone with Down syndrome. I smiled as I kept walking while chastising myself for judging her funky footwear.

I’d recently finished reading the much-praised memoir, “A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny,” by Princeton-educated theologian and mom Amy Julia Becker (Bethany House, 2011). I’d wanted to read it ever since hearing of the Becker’s story, which chronicles the first two years after their daughter was born with Down syndrome. So I was thrilled to win a copy through a drawing on the author’s blog. As soon the padded manila envelope arrived in my mailbox, I tore it open and began reading.

Inside, I discovered a thoughtful and beautifully rendered story–not just about parenting a child with special needs but about recognizing God’s grace in whatever form it happens to arrive. Bright, beautiful, and well educated, Amy Julia had high expectations for her family until two hours after her daughter’s birth when a doctor pulled her husband, Peter, aside to reveal Penny’s condition. That moment challenged the author to re-evaluate her dreams for her daughter as well as her faith. From barely taking time to pray, Amy Julia develops a more intimate relationship with God while struggling to comprehend her daughter’s disability.

As a Christian and parent of a child with special needs, I closely related to Amy Julia’s faith and difficulties including the awkward stares and stumbling comments from friends and well-meaning strangers. Harder to identify with were the family’s two-month working vacations at a beach house, a trip to Europe, and the ability to hire a house cleaner. While we should all be so blessed, this aspect of the Becker’s experience presents a somewhat fairytale picture of raising a child with additional needs. For those with more limited finances and education, just affording a babysitter can be overwhelming and decreases an individual’s ability to cope with the challenges of successfully parenting such a child.

Although I wished Amy Julia had acknowledged these differences, the hope and insight she offers is free for all. Her experience represents the best possible scenario–a family willing to open their hearts to the needs of a child while accepting God’s grace–something all parents can reach toward. The book also includes timely information on genetic testing and statistics on the high percentage of babies who are aborted after being diagnosed with Down syndrome and other abnormalities. And it serves as a primer for people unsure what to say or do when meeting someone with disabilities. Most of all Becker’s memoir is a meditative and gentle tale of a mother’s love for her child.

That day at the YMCA, I finished a few more laps before noticing a pair of red boots on the feet of a person spread out on the floor, head on her arms. It reminded me of a story Amy Julia tells of her husband stopping to help a woman with Down syndrome through a snow bank and how he’d wished someone would be there to help Penny when he could not.

“Are you okay?” I slowed to ask.

The head lifted, and a pair of soft brown eyes met mine. “Yeah.”

“I just wanted to make sure,” I said, seeing she was only resting. “Have a wonderful day.”

And then I kept going, but I felt good knowing that wherever this girl’s parents were, their daughter was just fine.

Have you been hurt by comments about your children? Or do you struggle with knowing how to respond to people who seem different?