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Six Months Later, Reality Sets In for a New Jersey Town

by Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times

IDDLETOWN, N.J., March 8 - A middle-aged widow rarely gets out of bed when the sun is up. Another staves off the pain with mounds of paperwork and nonstop errands. One young mother, inconsolable and financially overwhelmed, has scared friends with dark suggestions that she and her children might join her husband in heaven. For a mother coping with a lost son, spirituality has become a comfort and a crusade.

Weather-beaten American flags still fly from every other minivan antenna, and the signs along Route 35 still proclaim "God Bless Middletown," but for most residents of this comfortable, self-concerned suburb, life has regained its former hectic rhythms, marked by early morning commutes, early evening intramural sports and monthly mortgage payments.

But six months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, there is little normalcy for the 34 households here that lost a family member. If anything, the surviving family members say, the daily struggles with sadness and anger have become more debilitating. The shock and numbness, the whirl of condolence visits and the bewildering distractions of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year have given way to unrelieved bleakness.

"As stupid as it sounds, the first two months, you still have hope he's going to come home," said Isabel Nimbley, a mother of five who lost her husband, Paul. "Now it's sinking in that he's gone, and it just keeps getting worse and worse."

Not that Middletown has turned away from the suffering. A zealous group of volunteers is still delivering cash, whimsical care packages and free vacations to the families; local schoolchildren are ready to shovel driveways should a late winter snowstorm arrive. Down at the municipal center, officials are preparing to honor the victims with a graceful memorial behind the train station. At the ShopRite and during basketball games at Middletown South High School, people still shake their heads when referring to Middletown's sad ranking as the community outside New York City with the highest death toll. It is just that the communal agony has been eclipsed by the private realities of work and family.

"The good will is still there, but a lot of people who weren't directly affected have begun to move on," said Detective Sgt. Joseph Capriotti of the Middletown Police Department.

That good will, so pervasive in the first few months, has been partly drained by other events, including a teachers strike in December that led to the jailing of 225 strikers. The bitterness has yet to fade, and as many as 100 teachers have already told the union that they plan to leave the district at the end of the school year. "The teachers are feeling dejected and unappreciated and the parents are mad that they went on strike and went to jail," said Joy Rothman, president of the Middletown Township Education Foundation, which raises money for the schools. "The morale is horrible."

Still more storm clouds are gathering over another matter: a proposed $150 million shopping center that would consume one of the last patches of open space in this monument to freewheeling sprawl. Contention over the project, dormant since Sept. 11, will heat up later this month when the town holds a hearing on the project. Already, lawn signs proclaiming a homeowner's position on the so-called Town Center have begun to compete for attention with the ubiquitous American flags.

These days there are other kinds of lawn signs, the ones that indicate a home is on the market and a family is on the move. Seldom seen in the boom years, the for-sale signs offer growing evidence that the layoffs on Wall Street and the downsizing at nearby Lucent and AT&T are beginning to hit this township of 66,000. For Middletown households, many of them dual-income and living slightly beyond their means, they are another discomforting reminder of how precarious a life with in- ground pool, media room and two S.U.V.'s can be.

Still, the spreading economic worries and public tussles over schools and development are largely irrelevant to Kristen Breitweiser, who spends her days focused on protecting the innocence and happiness of her daughter, and prodding officials to make sure that government compensation packages are fair. So far, Caroline, who turns 3 later this month, is blissfully uncomprehending of what happened to her father, Ronald, on that morning six months ago.

"I want her to smile and giggle forever and ever," Ms. Breitweiser said, pushing Caroline on a backyard swing. "No child should ever have to know that all they have of their father is his left arm."

Feisty and philosophical, Ms. Breitweiser, 31, has run on a potent mix of grief and fury since the death of her husband, who worked at Fiduciary Trust. Neither the passage of time nor the books on grieving have been much of a salve. "I'm just trying to get through each day, trying to reinvent myself," she said on a bright, bitterly cold day, chasing Caroline through a nature preserve that adjoins her property. "I don't want to be known as the 9/11 widow. I don't want people to look at me and feel sad. I don't want them to look at Caroline and say, `Poor little girl.' "

Ms. Breitweiser said she had contemplated moving away from Middletown, both to find anonymity and, perhaps, to shed some of the memories that permeate the bright, modern home she and her husband shared. His photographs are everywhere, as are some of the sunny Post-it notes he scribbled out the morning he died. "Sometimes I find them reassuring," she said. "Other days they're just a slap in the face, reminders of what was, and what will never be. Still, I can't take them down."

Fortified with an inner strength, Ms. Breitweiser is luckier than many. One Middletown widow, who asked that her name not be used, has been crippled by depression. "If I had young children, I'd be more motivated to get better," she said. "But all I want to do is sleep and sleep and sleep." Another woman who does have children, both of them toddlers, has rarely been left alone since she confided to a friend last month a desire to "meet her husband in heaven," with her children.

Detective Capriotti, 45, who is Middletown's unofficial liaison to the families, said he had noticed a second wave of bereavement prompted by a recent spate of victim identifications. "They were beginning to cope with it and then they get the knock on their door," he said. "It's almost like they're dying twice." Detective Capriotti is often the one knocking, accompanied by a nun or priest. He has delivered such news to about half the families.

Elaine Chevalier is luckier than most. Rescue workers discovered the body of her son, Swede, 26, less than a week after the towers fell. She and her husband, Vernon, have created several home shrines to their son: the one in the foyer is anchored by his favorite Warren Buffett book, a rawhide bone that belonged to his dog, and an old hockey jersey. The one in the kitchen features a few framed photographs and candles. Photo montages in the dining room and library show Swede as a fraternity brother at Cornell or as a towheaded child with an impish grin. "I don't want anyone to forget him," Mrs. Chevalier said.

Swede Chevalier's youngest sister, Brittany, 15, has been channeling her grief into Teens for Teens, a local bereavement group, which meets for rap sessions, ski trips and outings to the mall. Her mother, too, has started a support group, underpinned by her Roman Catholic faith. "Before 9/11, I was a woman of the world, a businesswoman," she said. "Life is different, now that I've stepped into a spiritual plane."

Almost catatonic those first wrenching weeks, Mrs. Chevalier said she began to recover her footing after a series of comforting dreams that featured her son and Christian saints. "Maybe people will think I'm wacky, but I get signs all the time that he's here with me," she said. "When I came to that realization, it was easier."

Tina Grazioso's mantelpiece shrine has just a few pictures of her husband, John, and a wooden urn of ground zero ashes, one of those distributed by New York City. Her husband's body was never found; that of his brother Timothy has been recovered. Both men worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. Like the other Middletown widows, Ms. Grazioso said the pain had intensified in recent months, although she is thankful for the distractions provided by three children, the youngest of whom is 15 months old.

"There are times when you're in the car by yourself when it really hits you," she said, turning away from the girls as tears welled up. "You shed some tears, and then you keep going."

She tries to stay upbeat, especially for Kathryn, 7, and Kristen, 5, who are struggling to understand why their father never came home from work. During the day, busy with school and play, they seem fine. But at bedtime, after Ms. Grazioso reads them stories and sings "Amazing Grace," the questions pour out: Were the bad guys smiling when they crashed the plane into the buildings? they ask. If Mommy dies while shopping at Target, how will we get home?

"It's horrible that a 5-year-old has to think about things like that," Ms. Grazioso, 35, said.

As she spoke, Kristen ran upstairs to fetch a CD she wanted to play for a visitor. It was the dance song "Please Don't Go," with those three words forming the chorus, a beseeching refrain that repeated again and again. "We should have played this for Daddy before he went to work," she explained. Just then the phone rang and Kristen eagerly ran to answer it. It was a telemarketer asking to speak to her father. "Daddy died in the World Trade Center," she said without emotion. The caller abruptly hung up.

During the first few months after Mr. Grazioso vanished, his youngest child, Michael, would merrily grab at photographs of his father and screech "Da-da." In some small way, it brought Ms. Grazioso comfort. But in recent weeks, as his garbled vocabulary grew, that word inexplicably stopped coming.

Hoping to disprove the point, Ms. Grazioso held up a photograph of her husband, a golden wire attached to the frame forming a halo over his head, and asked Michael who it was. He smiled but promptly lost interest. "It kind of hurts," she said. Then, pulling Michael close to her, she said, "The next haircut, we're going to get one so you look like Da-da. O.K.?"

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