A Perfect Daughter: Loving a Special Needs Child

If one noun could characterize Heath White's aspirations, it would be "perfection." All his life, he strove to be the best. He graduated from college with a 4.0 grade point average, finished at the top of his class in his Air Force flight training program.

He married his high school sweetheart, and a few years later their first child was everything he expected: lovely and, by all indications, smart.

It was only when his wife became pregnant a second time that Heath's definition of perfection was challenged and eventually shattered. The story was the subject of an extraordinary segment on ESPN's investigative journalism program "E:60."

When prenatal testing revealed that the White's second child had Down Syndrome, Heath was "heartbroken and dreaded her arrival." Having a developmentally-disabled child would reflect badly on him, he thought. So he pressured his wife Jennifer to have an abortion.

Had she caved to Heath's pressure, she would have just been doing what approximately 90 percent of those who receive this same diagnosis do. As Tucker Carlson put it nearly two decades ago, children with Down Syndrome have been "targeted for elimination."

But Jennifer couldn't do it, even though she feared her refusal might destroy her marriage. In fact, while Heath didn't physically leave, he withdrew emotionally. When Jennifer gave birth to Paisley, she might as well have been a single mom.

But all of this changed a few months after Paisley's birth. Something very simple, so "normal" and yet so beautiful and yet it changed Heath in an instant: Paisley smiled at her Dad. Suddenly, Heath understood that she was just as precious as any other child. And he wanted the world to know the same thing.

So Heath chose an unusual way to show how precious kids like Paisley are: He began competing in road races-ranging from 5 kilometers to marathons-while pushing Paisley in a stroller.

His goal, he said, was to show "how proud I am of her and that she's just like every other kid." His message to parents of children with special needs is to love them like every other child, one day at a time, and to realize that "you're going to get so much back."

Recently, he and Paisley completed their 321st and last competitive mile together. The number was intentional: Down Syndrome is the result of three, instead of two, copies of chromosome 21. Thus 321 miles.

A colleague of mine, whose son is autistic, says the scariest thing about learning that your child has special needs is wondering what the future will hold. So he gives a big "Amen!" to Heath's advice about loving your child one day at a time.

Christ taught us to pray "give us this day our daily bread." As the saying goes, we don't know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. Our task is to love those whom God has entrusted to us even as He loves us.

Our friend Chuck Colson, who could match Heath White's perfectionism and then some, used to talk about how much he had learned from his grandson, Max. Max reminded him that what mattered in God's eyes had little, if anything, to do with our ideas about perfection.

Chuck said, "When I first learned that Max was autistic, a great friend of mine wrote me a note that said, 'You have found real favor with God because He has given you a person with special needs in your family so you will learn sacrificial love.' At the time," Chuck said, "I didn't really get it. Now, believe me, I get it."

As you probably know, Chuck's daughter, Emily Colson, has written a beautiful book about her life with her special-needs son called "Dancing with Max." I could not recommend it to you more highly.

From BreakPoint. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship

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