He waved to his wife and baby son, and headed for the airport.

Fourteen years later, he still hasn’t come home.

The son is a teenager now, about to start a new school. The wife does the chores that her husband used to do. She takes care of the lawn. She fills the gas tank. She is hardened by her tears but strengthened by her faith.

She has never remarried. She gets by treating every day as another day, avoiding people’s pity, believing God has a plan. Still, this week will be hard. This week, the anniversary week, she will feel the old shudder, maybe take out the videos. Even though she must now treat Aug. 16 as just another mark on the calendar, it will always be the Good-bye Day.

The day Flight 255 went down.

“For the first few years, I would go away with my whole family,” Jenny Kimmel says. “I didn’t want to hear the media constantly bringing it up.

“Later, I went to a support group for the victims’ families. They were supposed to give each other hope. But when I went there, I saw so many bitter and angry people that I didn’t want to be a part of that, either.”

It was the worst air disaster in Michigan history. A summer Sunday in 1987. A Northwest Airlines plane, leaving Metro Airport for Phoenix, clipped a light pole upon takeoff, struck another pole, slashed the roof of a building, and burst into flames as it slammed into Middlebelt Road.

The pilots had made errors. That fast. That sudden. And 154 passengers, including Jenny’s husband, Gary, were never coming home again.

Trying to cope

Jenny saw the news on TV. Next thing she knew, she was bringing her husband’s dental records to the airport. She remembers the funeral, and then things get hazy.

“I don’t remember much of my son Matthew’s first year,” she says. “I was grieving in my own way.”

Her family back in Flushing rallied around her. They kept her strong. In time, she returned to the everyday world. She continued her job at GM. She went to church. She put her son through school.

Her husband, a tall, handsome 34-year-old man, the type who would buy her flowers and hold doors open for her, somehow had the foresight to have his affairs in order, even cemetery plots. It made logistics easier, but not the emotion.

“After his death,” Jenny says, “I was changed. I went out and got the biggest car on the road, a LeSabre, because it was supposed to be the safest thing.

“I have never flown since he died. I used to have nightmares that someone was forcing me to get on a plane and I would wake up sobbing.

“The last thing my husband said was he loved me and Matthew.”

She pauses. “He was supposed to be gone 2 weeks . . .”

Always the questions

Thursday is the anniversary of Flight 255’s crash. There will be media stories and recycled TV footage.

But the people involved don’t weep on Aug. 16; they weep all year. They don’t reminisce this week; they reminisce every day.

Jenny Kimmel says thanks to her strong Lutheran faith, she is able to cope with the idea that her husband is gone, because she believes she will see him again one day.

Others have a harder time. Why that flight? Why that day? Why my husband? Why my daughter?

Is there ever any answer for such questions? Jenny Kimmel, who had only a few years of a happy marriage, is now 41. Matthew is 14. He has never known his father.

When asked whether anything good has come out of this tragedy, Jenny says:
“Before the crash, I put spiritual things on the back burner. I never asked myself if I was ready to meet my maker.”

Now, she grapples with that every day, along with the memories, the burdens and the emptiness of life without a loved one. One flight. One mistake. One mark on the calendar.

It is worth remembering, even as the stories are revisited on Aug. 16, that for those who endured the worst thing to ever happen in a Michigan sky, sadness is not an anniversary, it’s a way of life.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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