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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.

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

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"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.

Related Monitor video on 9/11 anniversary:

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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