9/11 hijacking victim's family expanded, even without him

Lives Changed: A decade-long series of profiles of those most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.

The Mladenik family has adopted two children since 9/11. Even they miss their dad, who died in the hijacking of American Airlines flight 11 before they arrived.

By , / Correspondent

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    Sue Mladenik (l.), with daughter Grace (r.) and friend Aislinn Lodwig (c.), listen to the national anthem in a stadium restaurant at a White Sox game.
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The day her dad died, 1-year-old Yuan Qing Yu was waiting in an orphanage in Nanning, China. Jeff and Sue Mladenik, parents of four in Chicago's western suburbs, already considered the bright-eyed baby their daughter. As soon as they got her adoption referral, they planned to travel to Nanning Social Welfare Institute to bring her home. Jeff had already chosen her new name: Hannah.

Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, the software company executive boarded a plane that never landed. Among the unremarked tragedies of that morning: It left a twice-fatherless baby on the other side of the world.

9/11 changed the world in ways large and small. But most Americans see them only glancingly: at the airport, on the news.

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RELATED: Part 1 of Sue Mladenik's 9/11 story – 2002

For the Mladeniks, and other relatives of those who died that day, the legacy of the attacks is personal.

When American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center, Sue Mladenik lost her high school sweetheart and became a single mother of four. With time, she learned to manage her own finances and made the risky decision to refuse more than $2 million from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund; instead, she sued American Airlines and settled for a substantial sum. She adopted two little girls from China. She questioned her faith. She built a palatial home in "the middle of nowhere," and made numerous charitable gifts in her husband's name. She also maintained a close relationship with Jeff's parents, became a grandmother herself, took up running, hit menopause, streaked her hair pink, and tried dating again.

Since 9/11, Sue's three older kids have struggled to mourn their dad and pull their lives together; now they're starting careers and families. The younger three have grown from needy toddlers and preschoolers into warm, poised, funny young women.

Along the way, Sept. 11 has evolved from a day the Mladeniks dreaded each year into a kind of family holiday, when "Team Mladenik" – Sue and her kids and granddaughter, with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends – celebrates Jeff.

Last year, more than 60 Mladeniks and supporters gathered at Chicago's US Cellular Field to watch daughter Grace, now 14, throw the first pitch at a White Sox game in honor of her dad, a lifelong fan. This month, 15 are spending nine days in New York City, running a 5K race in Jeff's memory, visiting the newly completed 9/11 Memorial Museum, seeing the sights, and remembering the man they loved.

"I don't know that I'll ever have peace" with Jeff's death, Sue says. Any mention of American Airlines, or the Transportation Security Administration, still makes her furious. Osama bin Laden's death didn't bring the satisfaction she expected.

But especially with young kids, life barrels on.

Today, Hannah Qing Yu Mladenik is a fifth-grader with a pink-and-blue daisy manicure; she loves math, gymnastics, and Angry Birds.

This is what she knows about her dad: "He was kind and funny. Like how he used to take the circle cookies and pretend they were his eyes. And for Mother's Day, he would let the kids pick out any things they wanted, so [Mom] has a bunch of funky, silly jewelry. They used to sit in the back of his truck and get ice cream," Hannah says. "And he was just, like, really happy to have me coming."

After Jeff's death, Sue reapplied to adopt Hannah as a single parent. In August 2002, the family traveled to Nanning to bring her home.

"And then, I don't know," Sue says, "I had a brain freeze and decided I should do it again."

Questions not to ask

If your mom is a 9/11 widow and you don't want to make her cry, there are some things you don't ask during Christmas Eve dinner.

"So, like, Daddy's not going to come back alive again, and I'm really not ever going to meet him, right?" is one of those.

But Bethany asks.

Adopted two years after Hannah, from a list of "waiting children" with special needs, Bethany, now 9, is an affectionate chatterbox who loves pandas, breakfast sausage, and the color pink. Like Hannah – and Grace, who was adopted from China three years before Jeff died – Bethany knows Jeff through stories. Though she isn't his daughter in the legal sense, emotionally she is. Bethany sometimes comes into her mom's room in the middle of the night, crying "I miss Daddy."

"Some of my friends say, 'Even though your dad is dead, he's still right next to you, invis-ible,' " Bethany says. But it doesn't really feel that way. "I forget about him sometimes," she admits. "Like when I'm happy, I forget."

How do you give a child a father she will never know? It's a question hundreds of newly single parents and parents-to-be faced after the 9/11 attacks.

Sue rebuilt her life around it: "I see my purpose in life as not letting my children forget their father, and what he stood for, and what kind of man he was. Even the ones that never met him."

Over the years, that has meant different things. When Monitor readers met Sue in 2002, a friend described her as "a walking shrine" to Jeff, covered in commemorative bracelets, pins, and necklaces. Today, her bracelets celebrate the White Sox and breast cancer awareness. Nine years ago, her home was filled with photos and mementos of her husband; now, photos of her kids' milestones crowd the walls and surfaces.

These days, the only shrine is a basement wall devoted to photos of Jeff, posters of the twin towers, and other mementos.

As one friend puts it, there's a new "solidness" to Sue. Nine years ago, she was desperate to bury Jeff and have a place to visit him; after five pieces of his body were identified in the rubble, she got that chance, and with it, a certain calm. In the past few years, it has become thinkable for her to date, maybe even to remarry someday.

Channeling energy into shared causes

She says she feels less angry at God, and less angry in general. Though 97 percent of victims' families took part in the federal 9/11 compensation fund, Sue refused. After Jeff's death, she fought battle after battle in his memory: one against American Airlines, another against the city of New York for the handling of victims' remains in the cleanup after the attack. More recently, she has channeled that energy into causes for which she and Jeff shared a passion.

For "the big kids," as Sue calls her and Jeff's three biological children, it's easier to keep his memory alive because they grew up with him. Today, Kelly, 31, and Josh, 28, both live nearby. Sue sees them often, and talks or texts daily with Daniel, 26, in Colorado. All three struggled in the years after Jeff's death: Daniel with explosive anger, Kelly with addiction, and Josh by withdrawing. Sue says all three are on a surer footing now: all are working, Kelly and Dan both recently finished college, and Josh is married and has a 2-year-old daughter on whom the whole family dotes.

But Sue says the pain of Jeff's absence is especially acute at her kids' milestones. She spent much of Josh's 2009 wedding reception in the bathroom after overdoing it with champagne.

Friends and family were surprised when Sue continued adding toddlers to the family while her older kids were flailing. Some questioned the wisdom of channeling her grief that way. Her mother-in-law asked, "Are you crazy?"

"I'll grant you, it's probably not something I would have done, but that is how they responded to grief and pain. Sue decided 'I'm going to give. I'm going to give one more time,' " says Bill Cirignani, a friend from Christ Church of Oak Brook, the 5,000-member evangelical congregation where Jeff taught marriage classes. "While I suspect her pursuit of those children was a form of medication for the pain, they succeeded in that – not in a manipulative way, but because it allowed the family to invest their hearts and souls into these three beings who needed them."

"It raises lots of questions," Mr. Cirignani says. "But God is interesting in these ways."

For the youngest girls, Hannah and Bethany, who never met Jeff, Sue says it's a delicate balance, trying to foster their sense of connection to him without making them too sad.

"I try to follow their lead," she says, and cry with them when they need to. "They grieve deeply for somebody they never met. But I don't think that's a bad thing, because he's their father."

Watching her dad die in news clips

Apart from two close friends, Grace doesn't tell people at school how her dad died. So it was a shock, in seventh grade, when a social studies teacher pulled her aside and said, "We're watching a video on 9/11 tomorrow. Are you OK with that?"

"I guess," said Grace. The next day, she sat with her head on her desk as the rest of the class watched her father die.

After a furious e-mail from Sue, the teacher tried to apologize. But the video wasn't what most unnerved Grace.

"I just asked him: 'How did you know?' " Grace remembers asking her teacher.

Over the years, all the Mladeniks have wrestled with how private to be about their relationship to the historic day. The publicness of Jeff's death, and the ubiquity of reminders, compounded the family's pain. Sue fenced their yard, fled stores when casual acquaintances got weepy, and spoke to the press infrequently. But word got around, and she hated feeling like "the local freak show." In 2007, with some of Jeff's life insurance money, Sue built a new home in a remote suburb.

"I thought we'd fly under the radar out here," she says.

Then Mr. bin Laden was killed, and Sue agreed to an interview with a local TV station, for much the same reason she chose to speak with the Monitor. "I feel like Jeff's life is important, and if I don't speak out, people don't know anything about him. So as much as I want to stay private, I can't," she says.

Among 9/11 victims' families – even among Sue's own kids – reactions to bin Laden's death ran the gamut.

Sue was conflicted: "I've probably wished him dead a million times. But when he was actually dead? An eye for an eye doesn't feel good. And basically, it didn't change anything. Somebody else is going to step in" to lead Al Qaeda, "and it didn't bring my husband back."

When the TV segment aired, their secret was out. At Grace's next soccer game, a mom approached a friend of Sue's and whispered, "Was that Grace's dad?"

Nine years ago, Grace was a pigtailed 5-year-old, playful but clearly pained by her father's absence. Today, she's a ninth-grader with talents so varied that the quiz she took at a recent school career fair suggested: "Artist. Web designer. Stunt double."

Prominent in the basement shrine to her dad are a cap and ball from the White Sox game last September, when Sue arranged, through an acquaintance, for Grace to throw the first pitch. It seemed like a positive way to reclaim a miserable day – even if soccer and track are Grace's sports. She practiced with her uncle for weeks, but when the day came, she was worried. So much of Team Mladenik had come to watch that they filled a bus and overflowed two skyboxes.

For her family, living and dead, this had to go well.

Grace led her mom and five siblings to the pitcher's mound, dressed in Sox jerseys and T-shirts with her dad's face on them. As the crowd screamed and her sisters waved on the giant screen, someone tossed Grace a ball.

"My whole body went numb," she remembers.

She blew her dad a kiss. Then she nailed it.

Lives Changed: A decade-long series of stories on the recovery of those most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.

1. A Queens schoolgirl whose parents were first responders: 2002, 2003

2. A window washer who escaped a stuck twin tower elevator: 2002, 2003

3. An investment banker who left his career to start a ground zero networking nonprofit: 2002, 2003

4. An Iraqi Kurd refugee recast as an enemy and detained because he looked like the hijackers: 2002, 2003, 2011

5. The widow of a passenger on hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 struggled to preserve - and enlarge- her family: 2002, 2003, 2011

6. A World Trade Center tenant who lost her address but added volunteerism to her career portfolio - 2002, 2003

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