They were getting married. Then a stroke changed everything - except for one thing

Nicole and Robert on Sunday.
Nicole and Robert on Sunday. Charlotte Observer

The stroke happened two years ago, in July 2016. Robert and Nicole were engaged to be married that fall. They were both from Queens, New York, but they’d first met at work in Charlotte, at the Department of Social Services. Robert says: “She was beautiful.” Nicole says: “He was shy.” But one morning at work a few years back, he brought a her breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s. When she told him nicely that she wasn’t really a McDonald’s kind of girl, he brought her another breakfast sandwich the next day. This one was from Laurel Market.

“That’s when I knew I had him,” she says.

But on that Friday night in July 2016, Nicole got a phone call from Robert, who had just finished working out at the gym.

“Something’s wrong with my head,” he said. “You need to come get me.”

She asked which gym she could find him.

He didn’t know.

This is a love story, and because it’s a love story, it’s not only about the things that go the way we want, but all the ones that don’t. Robert Sampson suffered a stroke that day two years ago, and he suffered another one shortly after. The brain damage took away his vision and paralyzed him on one side.

For the first month, Robert didn’t know who Nicole was. He would remember when she told him, but forget by the next time he saw her. That November, he was struck with congestive heart failure. A few months later, he needed surgery for a MRSA skin infection that spread to his spine. Doctors told Nicole to prepare for her fiance to die. “We said goodbyes a third time,” she says.

But Robert survived, and he was moved to a nursing home where he slowly began to recover. His vision hasn’t come back, and he’s unable to stand or take steps on his own, but as months have passed Nicole has been able to take him out to dinner or back to her house each Sunday.

“I grab her hand and I grab a rail,” Robert says. “And she walks with me.”

Nicole says: “If you’d heard us in the car - not seen us but heard us - you wouldn’t know anything was different.”

Her friends - being good friends - have watched out for Nicole’s heart. They’ve asked if she’s sure that a life with Robert is still the best path for them. Nicole has thought about this, too, in a way. “I want the best for him,” she says. “I feel like if God had released me from Robert, I would say I found a nice a place for him and he would be fine.”

But Nicole has been able to do what might be the hardest thing when your world has changed - to understand what hasn’t.

So on Saturday, two years after Robert Sampson suffered a stroke, he left the nursing home to move in with Nicole and her daughter, Kayla. On Sunday, he was wheeled down the middle aisle at The Grove Presbyterian Church, wearing a dark blue suit and white rose. Nicole Thompson followed shortly after, beautiful in her white dress. She took a seat next to Robert’s wheelchair in front of the altar, and reached for his left hand.

“Friends,” said Pastor Kate Murphy to the guests behind them, “we’re about to see something miraculous and glorious.”

And they did. They saw the bride say “I do” and they saw the groom say “I do.” They heard the singers ask “Will you still love me?” and the pastor declare “No marriage is always ‘for better.’ “

Finally, it was time for the vows. Nicole stood, and so did Robert, with the help of his brother and a friend. Then Nicole and Robert said what they’ve been waiting to say for two years, and what they know more now than ever, still holding hands, standing together.

Peter: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com