I first met Bob and Eileen Monetti three years ago, on a frigid October day in Syracuse, N.Y. I was wearing a button with a sketch of their son. They smiled at me and introduced themselves, and I blurted out a choked-up combination of "It's so nice to meet you" and "I'm so sorry for your loss."
The Monettis' son Rick was killed four days before Christmas, on Dec. 21, 1988, when his flight home from London - Pan Am 103 - exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground.
Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the bombing.
Rick was one of 35 college students studying abroad through Syracuse University, and each year since, the school has selected 35 students to represent the victims and plan a week of remembrance.
The process for choosing the person I wanted to represent was fairly simple. Rick was from the Philadelphia area. He was in the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, studying journalism. Perhaps closest to my heart, he was a Phillies fan.
So I started looking through some of the belongings and photos of the 35 bombing victims, which were in an archive at Syracuse. The students looked a lot like my friends, only with '80s hairstyles. I read about Rick, a 20-year-old aspiring sports broadcaster who, in one of his journals - quoted countless times in the aftermath of his death - said, "Don't sit back. Make the most of everything. The opportunity is here, stop looking past it."
Since Rick's death, his parents have searched for answers about the bombing. They've traveled to Lockerbie and Libya, given countless interviews, and can tell you nearly every story of every person on the plane, along with updates on how their families are doing, whether they've moved to Florida, and how their health is.
"An anniversary like this, you've got to make a plan for," Bob Monetti, 70, said. "You can't just ignore it. We decided a long time ago the best place to be was with other family members. It's always better to be together. You don't have to explain to each other."
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines at the time of the bombing, was the only man convicted of the crime. He was freed on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government in 2009 because of his terminal prostate cancer. He died last year in Libya. Moammar Gadhafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing in 2003 and paid compensation to the families of the victims. He was overthrown and killed in October 2011.
"The 25th [anniversary] is worse. I don't know why," said Eileen Monetti, 67, a Pan Am 103 pin secured to her sweater. "I guess the fact that Gadhafi's dead, a lot of people think that changes things, that that's it - but it isn't. We want to know more, we want a definitive answer of what happened."
The family used its portion of the compensation to open the Schoolhouse Nursery School in Mount Laurel, and faithfully attends the annual ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on the anniversary of the bombing. This year, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to a crowd of more than 700.
The family has also taken the time to meet nearly every Syracuse University student selected to represent their son, keeping in touch with many of them, including me.
Last week, over sandwiches at Ponzio's, the Cherry Hill couple told me about that day 25 years ago.
Eileen had just come home from her job teaching in Gloucester City - it was cloudy, she recalled. She remembers the sweater she was wearing. Her daughter Kara came to the door and said, "I think Rick's plane went down."
Kara had skipped school, hoping to greet her brother when he arrived home that day. Then a news bulletin about the crash interrupted the soap opera she was watching on TV.
Soon after, a TV station scrolled the names of Flight 103's passengers, as casually as a list of snow-day cancellations. Someone saw that and called the Monettis. Rick was gone.
Christmas that year was a blur, Eileen said, and the holidays in the years that followed continued to be difficult until the grandkids came - Kara, now 45, is married and has three sons, Keegan, 7; CJ, 9; and Rick, 13.
As we left the diner, conversation drifted to my career, the stories I'm writing, and the forthcoming busy weeks I have as a new reporter working on the sparsely staffed holiday weeks.
Bob smiled, made a joke about the daily grind, and then said: "Make sure you go home to meet your family for Christmas."