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She doesn't want to share her grief with a nation

A series profiling six lives since Sept. 11: defining moments in a historic year.

By Mary WiltenburgStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / 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.

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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.

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