One year later, a 9/11 widow struggles with the publicness of her family’s loss.
By Mary Wiltenburg. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on September 3, 2002
HINSDALE, ILL. — It took her five days to leave her bedroom, ten months to wash the sheets they’d slept in together, and more than a year to empty the dirty socks from Jeff’s gym bag.
But it didn’t take Sue Mladenik long to get that fence up.
Last Sept. 11, when her husband boarded American Airlines Flight 11 for a short, ugly trip, Sue and her four children became instant celebrities in their Chicago suburb. As the World Trade Center towers burned on TV, and word that Jeff might have been on that first plane spread up and down Hinsdale’s maple-lined avenues, neighbors flocked to the Mladeniks’ house. Reporters blocked their driveway. Churches took up collections.
A woman Sue hardly knew wept and clung to her at the post office. Sue walked out without mailing her package. “I don’t need to cry with strangers,” she says.Far from the scarred earth and public shrines, the Mladeniks had become a living link to a day that – the TV anchors promised – would Change America Forever.
Sue hated it – hated not only the fact of her family’s devastation, but its publicness.
The way everybody suddenly seemed to know her. The way Jeff died daily on the covers of newspapers and magazines.
She hated the fact that her 4-year-old understood enough to ask: “Was Dada on the first or second plane?” And she hated suspecting that some of the ‘old friends’ on her doorstep were only after a piece of her big-news grief.
“Sure, our friends wanted to be there for us,” she says. “But then there are those other people, the people who came out of the woodwork.”
So Sue ringed the backyard with a six-foot fence. Behind it, she thought, she might grieve in peace. She wanted to quit being “the local freak show.” She wanted to sit like any other mom and watch her daughter swing.
For the moment, money wasn’t a pressing concern: Mortgage insurance had paid off her house, and the life insurance policy at the Web publishing company Jeff headed had been a good one. Sue knew she’d have to go back to work eventually, but she wasn’t in a hurry. Still, she worried. Her daughter, Kelly, 22, had moved back home after Jeff’s death and was struggling with substance abuse. Josh, 19, was quietly grinding his teeth at night. Seventeen-year-old Daniel said he couldn’t stand being with Sue, “because all you do is cry.” Gracie, the youngest, wouldn’t let Sue out of her sight.
Sue had always relied on Jeff for discipline. She didn’t see how she could raise four children alone. But more than ever, they were the reason she got out of bed: her purpose and her sustenance.
As the days passed, her thoughts turned to a fifth child, waiting in a Chinese orphanage, for whom she and Jeff had chosen the name Hannah.
It’s not just her wedding ring. These days, wherever she goes, Sue also wears two silver bracelets engraved with her husband’s name and flight number, a WWJD bracelet (“This is probably blasphemy,” she says, “but to me it stands for ‘What would Jeff do?'”), a replica of her husband’s class ring on a chain, a gold heart pendant with a hologram of his face, a twin towers pin, and a heart pin with a hole in it.
Jeff’s best friend, Tad Lagastee, jokes that she’s turning into a walking shrine.
But at the strip malls on the edge of her town of 17,000, the jewelry doesn’t set her apart. People say the heart is cute. A Wal-Mart checker recently asked if the face on her necklace was The King.
Sue looked at her blankly.
“You know, Elvis?” the checker said.
Jeff and Sue grew up around here. They met after high school, working at the mall, and married when they were 20 and 21. For several years, Jeff’s marketing jobs kept the family moving: to Florida to Arizona. When they moved back to Illinois in the early ’90s with three small children, they were ready to land somewhere.
After Daniel went to kindergarten, Sue got a job teaching preschool. She was a great teacher, partner Mary Seiferth remembers. “But Sue was always a mother first. A fierce mother.”
In 1996, Jeff and Sue watched a TV exposé on Chinese orphanages. The squalor and deprivation lingered in their minds; Jeff started looking into international adoptions. A year later, Sue quit teaching, and in 1998 the couple traveled to the Linchuan Social Welfare Institute to bring Gracie home. Last summer, they filed paperwork to begin the adoption process again, and chose a name for their daughter-to-be.
But by early fall, Sue was a grieving single mother of four. Hannah’s dossier was no longer valid. Sue had to make a choice.
“People ask me, ‘What were you thinking?’ but there was nothing that was going to keep me from this child,” she says. “I know it’s what Jeff would have expected of me.”
Facing the specter of a second loss, Sue furiously refiled her paperwork. And waited.
The grief comes in waves. She’ll be having a perfectly normal day, and suddenly Sue will be blind-sided by it. “I’ve had to leave stores. I’ll be in the grocery and it’ll be his favorite cookie or something and suddenly I’m crying.”
When she closes her eyes, she sees Jeff’s last minutes alive. Most nights she sleeps only a few hours. In shops, in parking lots, when women complain about their husbands, snip at them for this or that, she wants to shake them: “Lady, stop it. He could be gone like that!”
Sue and Jeff hardly ever fought. Family friends say they were always struck even when he was working long hours and the kids were running her ragged by how much in love the pair seemed.
Though Jeff traveled a lot for work, especially in his last job as interim CEO of the Web publisher eLogic, he didn’t enjoy it.
Every night, he’d call Sue. They’d chat about their days, the kids, and what they would do together that weekend. Then he’d say, “I love you, sweetheart.” And she’d answer, the way she did that last night, “I love you too. Talk to you tomorrow.”
She couldn’t sleep until she had heard from him.
His death gave her more to lie awake worrying about: insurance benefits, DNA samples, television executives’ tasteless decisions.
In March, she heard CBS was planning to air new footage of Jeff’s crash. Sue appealed to her China adoption e-mail lists; friends and sympathizers sent the network hundreds of protest letters.
“Sensationalizing the murder of my husband and thousands of other innocent victims is shameful,” Sue wrote to CBS executive Gil Schwartz. “You have no idea what my life, or the lives of our children is like EVERY singleday.
“You know when someone gets married they say the two shall become one? Well, I am no longer one.”
Some days, Sue says, she feels she hardly resembles the person she was a year ago. “I look at our government differently now, I look at low-flying planes differently now.” She and Gracie don’t go to the zoo anymore; they see too many “mommy-daddy happy families” there.
It bothers her particularly not to have her husband’s body to bury. Though workers recovered a bone fragment matching Jeff’s DNA, it’s little comfort. Sue wants to put a stone at his head, to visit him, to mourn him on her own terms, “but I could bury him in a shoebox right now.”
Some say every American is a Sept. 11 victim. Sue doesn’t buy it.
If everybody grieved when the towers fell, why do they use the same tired lines on her they’ve always used? How can they say, “You’ll find someone else”? Or, “He’s in a better place”?
“I don’t think he’s in a better place,” she says. “There is no better place. You might as well kick me in the stomach.”
She knows Jeff wouldn’t be proud of her anger. He believed in heaven. At Christ Church of Oak Brook, the 5,000-member evangelical congregation he was drawn to for its seriousness about the Gospel, he taught a class for newlyweds. His last lessons were about humbling yourself before God.
“I’m just not there yet,” she says. “I don’t believe there’s a better place for him than, selfishly, with me. But mostly with my children.”
Her children have always been the center of Sue’s life sometimes, friends say, to a fault. Sue says they’re the reason she’s still alive.
But Jeff’s friend Tad, now one of Sue’s closest confidants too, says her single-minded family focus is more than a distraction from grief. “I think Sue sees loving her family as her way to love Jeff,” he says. “Call it therapy, call it a love affair. Call it what you want: He was her sweetheart.”
In some ways, Sue says, losing Jeff on Sept. 11 was probably a lot like what it would have been to lose him any other day. That same impossible feeling of: “I can’t believe this is my life. I can’t believe this is the rest of my life.”
“The difference,” she says, “is not many people get to see their loved one blown to bits over and over on TV.”
And not many people’s losses are celebrated as “anniversaries.”
“I still can’t quite spit out ‘anniversary,’ ” says Sue “because anniversaries are happy things. They’re things you celebrate. They’re things Jeff and I celebrated.”
She wants to mark the day, though. This Sept. 11, Sue hopes to take her kids to ground zero, to hear the names of the victims read, and to meet the wife of the man who sat next to her husband in his final minutes.
But she won’t have much time to spend looking back. This March, after months of waiting, Sue got Hannah’s adoption referral in the mail.
Two weeks ago, despite Daniel’s promise never to fly again, the family boarded a plane to Beijing. Last Sunday, they held 1-year-old Hannah for the first time.
On Thursday, Sue plans to bring all five children home to Hinsdale.
There, in the crib by Sue’s bed, a pile of teddy bears made from Jeff’s favorite shirts is waiting. “I hate that Hannah will never know her father – at least in this world,” she says.
“But she’ll know what kind of man he was, and she’ll know he loved her. I’ll make sure.”