TOWSON – Partly because they thought Towson had the prettiest girls, and partly because it was too far to go home from Camp Lejeune for just a few days, Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski’s buddies used to tag along on his trips to his mother’s house.
Tracy Miller offered them blankets, sleeping bags, carpet — anything to be comfortable — but they were Marines, and they slept sprawled out on the hardwood living room floor.
When she came home from an antiwar protest in Washington one evening, she found Nick and his friends watching television. Why would you protest against the war, they asked.
Because I want you guys to come home real soon, she said.
But Nick didn’t. He was killed on a Fallujah rooftop by a sniper in November.
Many of Nick’s friends still call, visit and e-mail Tracy. One spent a weekend with her right after the unit returned from Iraq. She deeply appreciates the connections, but worries about holding his friends back.
“I don’t want them to think that I want them living in the past,” Tracy says. “I don’t want them to feel that they need to stop whatever they’re doing and keep bringing up the memory of Nick’s having been killed. You know, I want them to go on with their lives and remember Nick, but not keep having these memorials.”
Marine Cpl. Nicholas Ziolkowski, 22, was stationed at Camp Lejeune with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. He had been a Marine for three years when he shipped out to Iraq in June.
When his unit returned in early 2005, more than 20 were dead. Most, like Nick, died in November in Fallujah.
Tracy and her other son, Peter, drove to Camp Lejeune for a memorial ceremony this spring. For each of the unit’s fallen soldiers, a pair of boots, a gun and a helmet was displayed. Toward the end of the ceremony, the families went up and stood around the display so that the Marines who had known him could come up and introduce themselves, Tracy says.
“It was a whole room full of crying people,” she says. “Crying Marines, crying families.”
Nick is remembered in news reports and by friends as a virtual saint — noble, considerate, charismatic and unfailingly supportive of the underdog.
Tracy remembers all those beautiful things, but she also remembers Nick as a real person: One who lied to her and got a tattoo on his shoulder when he was 16, one who sometimes struggled mightily in school, one who only passed a Spanish class, Tracy says, because the teacher liked him.
“I’ve tried very hard to make sure that people realize that . . . he was a normal guy, too,” she says. “He hung out in bars with his friends, he cussed a lot.
“You could not know Nick and not love him. And not because he was this plastic person,” Tracy says. “He was just fun. He was sunshine.”
Framed photos of Nick and Peter adorn the coffee table and line the stairs at Tracy’s townhouse. Nick was tall and handsome; the neighbor’s daughters found excuses to hang around when he was home on breaks.
Tracy says she and Nick were close. He could even be a little too open about his personal life, she says with a small laugh: He once asked if she thought a divorced mother he met in a bar was too old for him.
Now, she hurts when she wakes up in the morning, she says, or when she thinks about giving him back rubs as a little boy. She can almost channel what it felt like when he rubbed her back.
“We never thought that Nick would get killed,” she says. “I mean, he was such a vital life.”
They talked about what might happen, but she never figured it would happen to him. “I mean . . . He made such a difference, it was so important for him to be here for so many people.”
Tracy has not visited Nick’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. She does not believe Nick’s spirit is there. Nor does she spend much time in his bedroom, which is as sparsely decorated as he left it.
The letters from President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a host of others sat in a pile, slipped neatly back into their envelopes, until Tracy put them away recently. A crisply folded American flag in a glass case sat unceremoniously on a living room chair, overshadowed by a wall of books and framed photos, until it, too, was stowed away.
She thinks back to the night in November when she learned Nick was dead.
“They had it timed so that they came here at the exact moment they went to (ex-husband) Andy’s house,” Tracy says. It was after 7 on a Sunday evening and Tracy, who teaches at Towson University, was finishing up work from a just-ended writers conference that she had organized.
The doorbell rang and she asked who was there. Before she could open the door, two master sergeants identified themselves.
And she cursed. She knew.
“I collapsed,” she says, motioning to the spot on the sofa where she sat. “And all they could say was, ‘Combat.'”
“I just cried all night.”
Tracy is flooded by emotion when memories bring out “the promise, and then the waste.” She passed Nick’s pre-school and cried as she watched children on the playground. She dug up an outline of Nick’s 5-year-old palm traced on construction paper, and she cried then, too.
But she is pragmatic by nature. “I know that you can’t change the past,” she says. Instead, she struggles to grasp that her son is gone forever.
“We talked about the fact that I was intellectualizing this, and I know that I am,” Tracy says. “It’s partly kind of not realizing what it all means.”
She thinks the ceremonies honoring Nick and other soldiers might help her absorb the fact that he is gone.
“What does being dead mean? What does Nick’s being dead mean to me? You know what I mean?” she asks. “It’s not that I don’t miss him. Of course I miss him. But I’ve been missing him . . . essentially for (the) four years he hasn’t been here.
“So it’s a matter of kind of understanding that I will never see him and I can’t — I can’t grasp that concept.”
Tracy has received quilts and sympathy cards from around the country, and visits from veterans she didn’t even know. Some people tell her that Nick is in heaven, that he died for a noble cause. They wear yellow ribbons to show they care.
She appreciates such efforts — “their intentions are good” — but very little has been a true source of comfort.
“Knowing how many people care about me, you know, how much support I have, has been comforting,” she says.
Still, she aches. And she knows she is not alone in grief.
“People will say to me, ‘I can’t know how you feel. My mother died and that was horrible but oh, it’s nothing like what you’ve been through,'” Tracy says. “And I keep thinking . . . grief is horrible and it doesn’t matter — I mean, yes, the situation (with Nick) is maybe more tragic, but the grief is as real and as awful for both.
“I wouldn’t feel better if it had been, you know, my mother, my brother . . . my father has died, my sister has died, and they’re all awful,” she says.
“I don’t think there are degrees of grief.”
When she looks back over Nick’s life, Tracy seems staggered by what a fundamentally good human being he was and by how much of a difference he could have made in the world. Not because of a job or a career, but because of the person he was sure to become.
“The last night before boot camp we had dinner at TGI Friday’s and . . . he put his arms around me — now this is my younger son — put his arm around me, walked me to my car,” Tracy says. “I was crying and he said, ‘Mom, I just want you to know I’m proud of you. I know that you had to sacrifice a lot, and that it wasn’t easy for you, but you raised two good sons.'”
Nick was like that, she says, as much a mentor as a son at times. In his e-mails home, he encouraged her to keep going to the gym and told her she looked good.
“Some of his friends have told me that when they need strength and resolve, they think of Nick. I don’t know how far that’s going to take them, though,” she says.
Tracy is determined to honor Nick by living her own life, in the ways she feels he would have wanted her to.
That means everything from “going to (the gym) Curves, trying to go every day that I can . . . to deciding whether I’d like to travel and see some of the things that Nick saw that I didn’t,” she says. She plans to go to South Africa in the fall and is thinking of other things to do, “that if he can’t, maybe I can.”
She has come to realize that “there’s such impermanence to our lives. And that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do the things that I’ve been putting off doing or just, kind of, not felt like doing.”
Part of her new life involves her role as a Gold Star mom — the mother of a fallen soldier. It’s a role she wrestles with: While Nick’s immediate Marine family has been a great source of support, Tracy does not feel she has as much in common with the larger military circle.
“I feel very uncomfortable when people thank me for my sacrifice, because it’s certainly not one I made willingly and I also don’t think that it was justified,” she says.
To the cameras and reporters that began descending on Tracy the day after Nick died, Tracy was the anti-war Gold Star mother willing to speak her mind. She says she did not court publicity, but “I also wasn’t going to ignore it.”
And she is OK with the publicity in part because it keeps Nick in the present.
“It’s cathartic and it keeps him — I mean, it’s not that he ever disappears from my heart but it just — it’s a way of kind of keeping him, you know, actively alive.”
Tracy never bothered getting excited about spring until April 21 — Nick’s birthday. The blooming flowers and budding trees meant warm weather, and they meant Nick.
But now spring is here for the first time in 23 years without Nick. She spent his birthday this year with a friend — and thought about Nick a lot, she says.
Tracy was a busy person even before Nick died, but since November she has almost never eaten dinner alone. Friends and family keep her active and out of the house.
She likes to say that, on a day-to-day basis, nothing’s different since Nick died. But also that, since Nick died, her life will never be the same.
“The only person I can affect (is me) and so I will just try, as I said, you know, to live my life the way I think he would have wanted.”
-30- CNS 04-22-05