May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

KEENLY AWARE OF THE SYMBOLISM of nature’s cycle of loss and renewal, Kevin McCarthy took Leslie Nolan to Longwood Gardens on April 27, not far from where they were spending the weekend in Pennsylvania. Leading her to a bench by a waterfall, he handed her a diamond ring and a card that read, simply, “Let the happily ever after begin.”

Nolan, 36, was happier than she was surprised. “I knew it was coming,” she says. Maybe because McCarthy had already sent her roses every day for a week. Or maybe because the 29-year-old mutual funds clerk, who came within a millimeter or two of losing his life three years ago, isn’t much given to frivolous gestures.

Once ordinary suburbanites from Mineola, N.Y., McCarthy and his parents found their lives tragically altered on the evening of Dec. 7, 1993. McCarthy and his broker father, Dennis, who both worked for Prudential Securities in Manhattan, were only a few minutes from home on a crowded Long Island Rail Road car when Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant now serving a life sentence without chance of parole, opened fire indiscriminately with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Six passengers, including Dennis McCarthy, were killed. Kevin, one of 19 wounded, was shot in the head and was expected to die. He survived, but required months of physical rehabilitation.

With her husband dead and her son’s future uncertain, retired nurse Carolyn McCarthy turned activist, running for a seat in Congress last fall and winning on the issue of gun control. “You just don’t know where your life takes you,” she says. She certainly didn’t know her campaign would eventually win her son a fiancée.

Once a congressional aide for Tom McMillen (D-Md.), Leslie Nolan had spent the previous three years working in Washington as a policy analyst for NASA. Realizing last fall that she had built up some vacation time and itching to get back into politics, Nolan contacted a friend at EMILY’S List, a group that supports female candidates. The friend told her about McCarthy, and by week’s end, Nolan was on a train bound for a volunteer job as the candidate’s chauffeur. “My family said, ‘Do you know anyone on Long Island? Have you ever been to Long Island?’ They thought I was crazy.”

Kevin McCarthy, who suddenly started showing up at campaign headquarters, thought otherwise—though he tried to hide it. He would tease Nolan, she recalls, asking her, “Don’t you have any work to do, you big federal employee? No wonder my taxes are so high.” Nolan refused to be baited. “I decided if he was going to pick on me,” she says, “I’d make him give me foot massages.”

The jousting eventually evolved into a first kiss at Carolyn McCarthy’s victory party—and huge phone bills when Nolan returned home to suburban Bowie, Md. After she came to visit on a weekend in late November, the relationship moved into higher gear. Noting that her son was spending most of his weekends with her former volunteer, the new congresswoman shifted back into Mom mode. “I said, ‘Just let me know: Are you planning on eloping or are we going to have a wedding?’ ”

“You’ll be part of it,” Kevin replied. With the wedding date still to be set, Rep. McCarthy has time to become acquainted with her future in-laws: Leslie’s two younger sisters; a younger brother; her father, Nick, a former federal union official who now heads his own retirement consulting company; and mother Mary, who runs the family-owned liquor store.

The Nolan family, meanwhile, can get to know McCarthy, whose recovery from his bullet wounds often inspires words like “miraculous.” The head wound—a titanium mesh plate has been placed over his right frontal lobe—has left him with little control over his left hand and foot, and he must take antiseizure medication daily. Still, McCarthy insists his injuries don’t limit him. He returned to his old job more than a year ago and is working toward an MBA. “I’ve had to learn how to do some things differently—I tie my ties once and from then on just pull them over my head,” he says, “but I’m basically a normal, everyday guy.”

An everyday guy whose mother happens to be a congresswoman. If Nolan can get transferred to a federal job in New York, the couple hope to buy Carolyn McCarthy’s two-story brick house after she buys a new place. “We have to stay in this district,” says the politically astute bride-to-be. “Every vote counts.”



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