A Year In Middletown

A Widow Tries To Put Her Life Back Together

At the northern tip of the New Jersey shore, it has been a beautiful summer –long, sunny days that are perfect for catching a wave or a line drive.

But soon summer will end and with its demise will come the anniversary of Sept. 11. Nowhere is that date more significant than in Middletown, N.J., whose ferry ends in the canyons of lower Manhattan, where 32 Middletown residents lost their lives that day. That's more than the town lost in World War II and Vietnam combined.

They left behind friends, spouses, and 60 children. Peter Van Sant has followed one widow's struggle over the past year.

On Sept. 25, 2001, Susan Buhse, new widow and mother of two, was trying to start a new life while mourning the old one.

"We were just all having such a good time," said Buhse, who met her husband Patrick when both were bond brokers working for Cantor Fitzgerald at the top of the World Trade Center. "We were living life. We didn't realize that we had to be thinking about what somebody was doing somewhere else, and how that was going to directly affect us."

Susan married Patrick in 1995 and moved with him the following year to Middletown, where their two sons were born. She remembers Sept. 11 vividly.

"I had just hung up the phone with him, discussing the hole in our kitchen ceiling from the leak we had," she said. "Immediately got a phone call from my girlfriend, who said, 'A plane hit Patrick's building.'"

She called him right back and told him what had happened, telling him over and over again "You have to go." He told her the floor was filled with smoke and no one could see.

"And then he had a moment of complete clarity where he just said, 'I love you. I love our kids. Susan, I love you.' Clear as day. And I just said, 'You have to go.' I hung up the phone on him 'cause I wanted him to leave. I wish I hadn't done that."

After the towers fell, Susan's father, Dan Doherty, joined an army of the bereaved wandering the city in search of loved ones. Though he searched for five days, Susan knew immediately the effort was fruitless.

"I remember sitting on the couch with my mother. Just about 11 o'clock and just saying, 'I'm a widow. At 32.' And she said, 'Yeah, you are.'

And so Susan Buhse became one of 21 widows in Middletown embarking upon a new life, an unwanted life, alone

Through it all, her mother, Elaine Doherty watched anxiously. "Sometimes she's very, very quiet, she doesn't say too much," Elaine said. "She has days where she seems to be dealing very well. She has days when she's very angry at everything and everyone."

Knowing that Christmas would be difficult, Allyson Gilbert, Janet Dluhi, and dozens of their friends started a group called FAVOR (Friends Assisting Victims Of terroR) that solicited donations and put together holiday gift baskets for all the families in town affected by Sept. 11.

By Christmas, FAVOR raised more than $350,000 in goods and services and $150,000 in cash and played Santa Claus all over Middletown.

"They brought baskets, they brought toys, they brought food, they had people rake leaves. And it was unbelievable," Susan said.

So Susan entered the new year on a positive note, but before long, she would get another jolt.

On Jan. 10, it fell to Middletown Det. Joe Capriotti to deliver more difficult news to Patrick Buhse's widow.

"It was my birthday," he said. "We had been notified that Susan Buhse's husband, Patrick, had been identified from the trade center. When I came to the door and I explained to her that he had been identified, I think the grieving process all started up again."

Most of the remains found at ground zero were, like Patrick Buhse's, identifiable only through DNA.

"I knew where my husband was," Susan said. "I didn't need to find his remains to know where he was. And nobody should have to talk about body parts when it comes to somebody's death. It's awful."

Susan waited patiently for ground zero to be cleared and then on a rainy Saturday in May, eight months she first had a memorial service for her husband, she finally laid Patrick to rest. And when the funeral was over, Susan had a party.

"I think I'm becoming a different person, whether I want to or not," she said. "I think I'm a lot stronger than I ever possibly thought I could be in my life. And I think I'm a lot more intelligent than I ever thought I was in my life. We are figuring it out, day by day."

Figuring it out means helping Will, 3, and Sloan, who is 5, cope with the loss as well. Local child therapist Joanne Dunnigan has worked with susan and her children. So have Middletown art therapists Cindi Westendorf and Laura Greenstone.

"He (Patrick) comes up every single day," Susan said. "Sometimes they want to put a place setting at the table for him. I'll do it. They want to put a seat belt in the car: 'Daddy needs his seat belt on, too.' OK. If it's going to make them feel better, I'd do cartwheels."

With the anniversary approaching, Susan is focusing more on the future and the kind of life she can provide for Will and Sloan.

"I want my children to be confident adults," she said. "I want them to have happy childhoods. I want them to be able to deal with what life throws their way. I have to do that first. Then they will be able to do it. I think I'll be well-prepared for whatever life throws my way."

Susan has started working out at the gym with another Sept. 11 widow, Mary Murphy. Murphy was pregnant when her husband James was killed. Their daughter, Meredith James, was born Feb. 1.

Both women are looking forward to getting past the anniversary. "I think that Sept. 12 will be a great day," Susan says. "A day of victory. One year down."

Both also are grateful to Middletown and its citizens.

"This town has been very wonderful, and have thrown their arms around us to help us out," Susan says. "Where would i want to go? What would be any better than that?"