An undying love: At Peggy's side

‘I love you Peggy, 51 years, 8 months, 18 days’

jholleman@thestate.comAugust 21, 2011 

Watch video: We accompany Bob Nolan as he goes on his daily visit to Peggy's grave.

The freshly risen sun peeks through the skinny trunks of pine trees on a nearby ridge, throwing long shadows to contrast with the shorter shadows from the perfectly aligned white grave stones at the Fort Jackson National Military Cemetery.

The black sedan rolls up and the slender man emerges, gathering a folding chair, a water bottle and a bouquet of roses from the trunk before pulling his rolling oxygen tank out of the passenger-side door.

He trundles a few dozen feet to his spot, his oxygen tank leaving a trail in the recently watered grass.

It’s the same every day. Oh, the shadows might disappear on cloudy days. Rain might negate the need to water the grass. Strong winds might make the man’s walk a bit more of a struggle.

But he will be there every day, to bring roses for his Southern belle bride, to plant a kiss on her grave stone, to stroke the top of the stone while he speaks to her and prays.

Bob Nolan met Peggy Williams at a USO dance in 1954 in Georgia, where he was recuperating from war injuries. So immediately was he smitten that he told a buddy, “Look at that beautiful Southern belle. I’m going to marry that girl.” She was equally taken with the talkative young Army supply sergeant from New Jersey. He waited just 2½ months to pop the question. They married Aug. 11, 1955.

She moved with him through Army transfers — South Carolina, California, France, Germany. They had four children before Bob ended his military career — after 20 years, 2 months, 22 days — at Fort Jackson in 1969. He worked another 19 years in civil service jobs in the Columbia area before retiring June 4, 1988.

Peggy was the perfect match for him. She was the epitome of the Southern magnolia — sweet all the time, tough when she needed to be. He was the New Jersey kid — rough on the exterior but with a heart of gold.

Bob loves to tell the story about the time Army red tape regarding a transfer forced the family to sleep in a station wagon in Germany for 27 days. When Bob kept losing his arguments with the Army brass, Peggy finally marched into Bob’s commanding officer’s office, knocked his feet off his desk and said, “You’re going to talk to me.” The family didn’t sleep in the station wagon after that.

But she also was the fun mom who later drew plenty of neighborhood children to their Northeast Richland home to join the Nolan kids for games, storytelling, crafts and cooking.

After the kids grew up and had kids of their own, Peggy and Bob thrilled in three-generation family outings. Looking back, daughter Kathy Nolan doesn’t recall her parents’ relationship as over-the-top romantic, but they always did everything together.

Bob’s voice has an Army-sergeant tone when he talks about leaving home on his 17th birthday, his war experience in Korea and his later battles with military bureaucracy. He wasn’t awarded his Purple Heart until 52 years after a mortar barrage caused permanent hearing and vision loss and abdominal injuries. In the chaos of the battle for the Pusan perimeter, the details of that day didn’t go through the proper channels until a Korean War veterans group began pressing for the recognition.

But the hard edge in Bob’s voice disappears whenever the discussion veers to Peggy, the love of his life from the day they met. Nearly six decades later, he remembers what he thought that night: “Where I come from, you don’t meet women like that.”

These days, Bob, 79, wears a hearing aid in his right ear, and his thick glasses often are askew on his bald head because they’re tucked unevenly under oxygen tubes that run over his ears to his nose.

A little more than a decade ago, Bob shelved his own health problems to care for Peggy when Alzheimer’s began to sap her life. He was determined she wouldn’t be shipped off to die at a nursing home or in a hospital. That meant he would have to be her nurse, a position for which he felt qualified after spending most of his Army career around hospitals. Family members compared his attitude to a hound dog. He refused to leave Peggy’s side.

Four days before she died, Peggy raised her arm to Bob and whispered “I love you.” He responded, “Baby, I love you more than life itself.”

She never said another word.

On the day Peggy died, Bob walked outside for just a minute. He was struggling with the idea she was going to leave him. An aide walked outside and told him he needed to come back inside. “Mr. Nolan, she’s not going to go without you. She’s got too much love for you.”

She died a few minutes later in his arms.

Bob still embraces Peggy in so many ways every day. In addition to the trips to the cemetery, he spends a lot of time in a recliner just a few feet from a TV in his bedroom. Multiple pictures of Peggy sit on a table next to the recliner. He calls that spot “my little piece of heaven because I’ve got her all around me.”

A dry-erase board on the wall marks the day and time Peggy died: 4:10 p.m., April 29, 2007. At the bottom of the board, Bob wrote “I love you Peggy, 51 years, 8 months, 18 days.”

A typed message taped to the bottom of the board says: “Never erase this board about mom’s passing. I want to keep it there till I join her.”

He updates a count of the number of days since her death each day at 4:10 p.m.

“I wonder why I’m still here. I wonder what I’ve done wrong.”

His children worry about those sorts of statements, but they also see the positive side of his devotion to his bride. Along with watching his grandchildren grow up, his routine honoring Peggy is what keeps him going.

A moment after wondering why he’s still alive, Bob says he’s thankful Peggy gave him “so many good memories to keep me going until I could join her.”

When he made burial plans for himself and Peggy, Bob chafed at the idea of spending $30,000 or more. That money should be going to their children. Then someone told him he and his wife were eligible for burial at one of the country’s national cemeteries for free, and a new national cemetery was in the planning stages at Fort Jackson just a few miles from their house.

The Fort Jackson cemetery hadn’t been opened by Peggy’s death, so she was buried at the nearest national cemetery, 70 miles away in Florence. Bob visited her grave every Sunday, spending several hours talking to her.

When the Fort Jackson National Cemetery opened in January 2009, Bob asked to have Peggy’s body moved from Florence. The day he got word of the pending move, he went to Wal-Mart to buy a dozen roses for the grave. As he hustled to the checkout counter, he tripped and fell. He suffered serious cuts on his chin and eyebrow, and his arm completely pulled out of his shoulder socket, damaging tendons around it.

He spent the day in the hospital, not at Peggy’s side.

When he was back on his feet, Bob spent too much time in the January cold at Peggy’s grave. He caught pneumonia, earning another trip to the hospital and causing permanent damage to his lungs.

But ever since he was healthy enough to return to the cemetery, he hardly misses a day. He arrives early in the summer to beat the heat, late in the afternoon in the winter to ward of the chill. He waits out heavy rain in his car, but light rain simply means he puts on waterproof gear.

During last winter’s heavy snow, Bob’s car couldn’t get out of his sloped driveway for two days. Turns out the cemetery was closed those days anyway because of the treacherous conditions. He also missed a few days while on a family vacation. Cemetery managers worried about him. He hadn’t told them he would be gone, and their days don’t seem complete without the sight of the black sedan and the slender man.

Bob strokes the grave stone while talking, a reassuring motion that gives the stone a sheen that sets it apart from the others.

Tears well up behind the dark glasses. Even at the early-morning hour, he’s so warm he opts to unbutton the top two buttons of his dress shirt. The contents of his left shirt pocket make the shirt droop, but the laminated copy of Peggy’s newspaper obituary remains in its place in the pocket, right next to his heart.

After about 30 minutes, he rises, folds his chair, strokes the top of the grave, and says goodbye to his beloved for another day.

VIDEO: We accompany Bob Nolan as he goes on his daily visit to his wife’s grave.

Reach Joey Holleman at jholleman@thestate.com or (803) 771-8366.

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