There’s a reason Noelle Burlew is the way she is. Why she is so organized yet easygoing, driven yet selfless, accepting of everyone. She is who she is because of Meredith.
Whistles blow nearby. Parents, including Nancy Burlew, fill the sidelines, cheering the Burke Catholic soccer team as it plays Chester Academy. Here, in the empty space between the parking lot and the field, is Kevin Burlew and his 18-year-old daughter. He’s on his left knee, arm draped around her and doing everything he can to put her at ease. He makes sneezing sounds. He picks her up and walks with her. Some fathers — many fathers — struggle to tell their children outright that they love them. Watching Kevin and Meredith, it is clear with every action how much he loves her.
But it’s almost 6:30 p.m., her bedtime, and she’s getting tired. A few more sneezing noises are necessary to turn those cries into laughter.
When Meredith was born, her mother, Nancy, was under anesthesia. The doctors handed the baby to Kevin, and he looked at his first child’s red face and smiled. But when Nancy and Kevin went to the nursery, there was a huddle around baby Meredith. Something was wrong, they knew.
Meredith had been born without eyes, they were told.
That wasn’t all.
She was also nonverbal.
“It shocks your world,” Nancy said.
Kevin said that he wanted to be happy in the moment, but, “You know you’re dealing with a whole set of circumstances you weren’t prepared for.”
Imagine, waiting your whole life to have a child and not learning until that child is born that she won’t be able to live the life you had envisioned. It was, and still is, difficult. Meredith is at the age when most kids are going off to college. She is straddling the cognitive function of an infant and a toddler. These challenges have been made easier, however, because they haven’t only had each other in this endeavor.
Filled with hope
When Nancy learned she was pregnant with another child soon after Meredith, her first question was, “Does she have eyes?” The Burlews had not figured out if Meredith’s condition was hereditary or not. A doctor reassured them, explaining that Meredith was “a genetic fluke of nature.” It wasn’t the most comforting bedside manner, but the doctor was right.
Noelle Hope was born exactly a year after 9/11 — hence her middle name — with a clean bill of health. Four years later, she was running around on a soccer field. The youngest member of the Burlew family was determined to be a great athlete, not because of who she saw doing it at the highest level, but because she saw her sister couldn’t do it at all.
In fourth grade, Noelle decided, without consulting her parents, that she’d scrawl Meredith’s name and initials on her cleats. It’s become a tradition; whether Noelle is on the basketball court or the pitch, her footwear is inscribed with a tribute to the girl in the wheelchair watching her.
“I just play my heart out for her,” Noelle says.
Some siblings are best friends, some aren't on speaking terms. Noelle and Meredith have a unique bond, one forged not out of necessity — Noelle is depended on to help take care of her elder sister — but out of pure love. When the girls were growing up, Noelle would try to teach her blind, nonverbal sister colors. She’d hand her a ball of cotton and say “white.” Noelle knew no limitations, not only for her but for her dearest friend.
From Noelle’s innocent youth to pre-adulthood, she has shown Nancy and Kevin how to put this journey in perspective. Kevin admits, “There were dark days where you certainly question why, what happened and what did we do?”
Those times of doubt are in the past. As Burke Catholic soccer coach Sara Fandl says, “You would never know that there was anything but positive things going on in their house.”
The house will soon be losing Noelle to college. This year on the soccer team is her “farewell tour,” as she is the only senior on a Burke team that relies on her for guidance and coaching. Noelle brings those natural leadership qualities to a young squad in need of it. Fandl said, “It comes very naturally to her. She doesn’t have to try.”
This, of course, all goes back to Meredith. “If it wasn’t for her,” Noelle said, “I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I was able to do.”
Noelle will likely go to college close by, because as much as she is ready and excited for the next chapter, she wants to stay close to her sister, the girl who made her a better, more well-rounded person. She wrote her college essay about Meredith. It’s completely shaped the way Noelle sees the world, and only in positive ways.
“I don’t look at anyone differently,” she says.
It also makes Noelle and her parents appreciate the small things. Meredith will burst into laughter when she hears certain sounds, such as the tearing of aluminum foil. If something like that can bring Meredith that much happiness, how can they not be happy with the gifts they’ve been given?
There is this word, "disability," that is used to describe a wide range of people, lumping all of them into one category that implies lesser worth. That somehow, because one or more abilities are either diminished or nonexistent, that person is unable to accomplish something incredible in their life.
Nancy knows that Meredith will never be the star of her soccer team like Noelle or win "America's Got Talent" as a singer. But, the Burlews believe, Meredith is still capable of doing something amazing in her lifetime. In fact, she already has.
“Meredith made us better people,” Nancy said.