CARRABELLE — Amanda Kelley's home didn't get blown apart when Hurricane Michael roared across the eastern Panhandle last month.
Her life did.
The hurricane was bearing down on the Gulf Coast as Kelley's husband, Matt, was awaiting life-saving heart surgery scheduled for the early morning of Oct. 12 at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. As the storm made landfall on Oct. 10, Amanda and her husband hunkered down at home. But the next day, after the storm blew in six of their home's windows, damaged the roof and left them without water or power, they set out for Tallahassee in hopes of getting a hotel room.
Unfortunately for them, hotels across the city were filled with utility crews staged there in advance of the storm. They went on to Thomasville, Georgia, more than 30 miles north of Tallahassee, to claim the only hotel room left within a reasonable distance of the hospital.
Early Oct. 12, three hours before he was scheduled to be at the hospital, 48-year-old Matt Kelley suffered a heart attack in the Thomasville hotel room and died, despite Amanda performing CPR.
Amanda and the five children in their blended family — Logan, 11; Ryan, 15; Marci, 15; Hunter, 17; and Morgan, 24 — are working to rebuild their lives. She agreed to tell the story to the Northwest Florida Daily News, but wasn't sure she could get through a telephone interview without breaking down emotionally. She did, though, answer questions by email.
The following, with only minor editing for syntax and punctuation, are excerpts of that exchange in 38-year-old Amanda's own words.
'The one person you want to call'
"It is extremely difficult on everyone involved, because Matt was always the go-to. The one person you want to call when you have a good day, a bad day, had a secret to share, needed some advice. He was the one we all went to. His every heartbeat was for his family. He would have given the shirt off of his back if it meant putting a smile on your face.
"Life has been super-busy for us because Morgan is in college. It's Hunter's senior year, Marci's sophomore year and Logan's first year playing football. We instantly had to go back to whatever normal that we could grab. We had homecoming, Senior Night and Seafood Festival that our kids were involved in the week after. We continued on with those things because they are important to us and they were very important to him. Education was the one thing he always preached. Our kids are athletes and he stressed the importance of being a student-athlete, with student being first. Everything else comes after that. ... They miss his guidance, knowledge, laughs, hugs — they just miss him!"
'The place you stand'
"I am taking life one moment at a time. One day at a time is too overwhelming for me right now. My faith in God and my kids are the only things that have gotten me this far.
"It's really hard for me to spend much time talking about myself because everywhere I look I see mass destruction. It's one thing to go through a death and feel like your life is a disaster area. I know, because I lost my daughter 12 years ago. (Newborn Leah, delivered while Amanda was in the hospital following an automobile accident, was delivered prematurely and died 12 hours after birth). It's completely different thing to go through a death and a major hurricane at the same time.
"My life feels just like all the surrounding areas look, and that is surreal. With my daughter's death I could still get in the car and find something familiar, now nothing is the same and nothing is familiar. It's Ground Zero, if you will — the place you stand and try to figure out which piece to pick up first and not really knowing what's next.
"I do have friends and family around me. My husband's parents and I have a home together that we bought three months ago. I have my husband's ex-wife, Mindy, close by. She has been amazing. We have a close relationship for our kids' sake. She lost her husband, Ross, less than a year ago, so our kids were still dealing with the loss of their stepdad. He was an amazing man as well.
"My parents, Hulon and Lorine, live in Apalachicola, and countless people I couldn't even start to mention (are helping us through this time).
"We live in a community that takes care of its own, and for that I am so thankful."
'There may not be a 'later' '
"Matt and I worked together for the last 10 years. He was a sergeant at Franklin Correctional Institution and I was an officer there.
"In 2016 we decided to take a leap of faith and we bought a food truck, calling it Kelley's Coastal Kitchen. We did that with our daughter Morgan and loved every minute of it — but it was a chapter in our life, not the whole book.
"In September of this year we sold the trailer and had plans for another venture. However, life didn't work out that way. I have not started working as of yet. I do have a dream of taking my crossover course (instruction to augment her correctional officer certification) and going into law enforcement.
"It's been a dream since I was 19, but life always happened and I never did it. After the death of my husband, I decided there may not be a 'later,' and if there is something that you want to do, you better go do it. So this is me following my own advice."
'He left a piece of himself'
"My husband and I were together for 10 years; we were married in March of 2014. His personality and his baby-blue eyes attracted me to him. He was funny — but serious when he needed to be — and he always smelled amazing. He was kind and caring and so very thoughtful. The word 'selfless' comes to mind when I think about Matt.
"We had talked years ago about how we felt like our calling in life was to help people. We never really knew what that meant. But when Matt died and I heard the stories from kids he coached — now grown men with families of their own — from people he worked with, from friends and family, I started to realize that he fulfilled his calling. He helped more people than he even realized. He left a piece of himself in the lives of everyone who knew him. He was an amazing human being.
"He was the voice of reason for me, the person I told everything, the safe place when I had a bad day. He truly was my soulmate. He understood me, loved me and always went above and beyond to make sure I knew how much! I'll miss his blue eyes, his warm smile, his safe bear hugs. I'll miss his advice, his guidance, his calls, his companionship. I'll miss making memories with my best friend, watching our kids grow up, traveling and seeing new places and things.
"I will miss all the plans we had together because now I have to figure out how to make plans alone. But I guess I'll never be alone, because he will always be in my heart. I could go on, because I am going to miss every single thing about this man! He made me the woman I am today, and for that I am so very blessed."
'I don't know where the door is'
"Still, I feel as though I am in a dark hallway and don't where the door is, but I have strong faith and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that brighter days are coming. For anyone out there who feels like they can't go on, I want to tell you that you can. You may not know how, but you just do it. If all you can do is crawl, then start crawling. Ask me how I know.
'He would be here if he could'
"Thanksgiving was always the holiday that Matt and his mom got in the kitchen and created pure magic. This year, we are doing life a little different. We will be traveling here and there. And that's OK, because doing different things isn't always a bad thing.
"As for Christmas — we loved Christmas. The tree, the lights, the kids' faces on Christmas Day! This year, it will be different — and hard, I'm sure, because a huge piece of our heart is gone. But I know he would be here if he could! He loved decorating and he loved cooking, so those things in themselves will be missed.
"Beyond the holidays, I am going to do everything in my power to get back on my feet and make our kids' lives the best they can be.
"For now, I'm thankful for our family, friends and community. I'm thankful that even though people were going through their own misfortune, they found it in their hearts to help us. We had no insurance at all and no money to bury Matt with, so I started a fundraiser and raised the money for the funeral expenses. I'm thankful for Jason and Chala of Kelley Funeral Home in Apalachicola for taking such good care of Matt for us, and for also taking such good care of us.
"This was a new adventure for us all. Hurricane damage and funerals aren't good together.
"I'm thankful for the Franklin County High School varsity football team, cheerleaders, coaches and teachers who have rallied around our kids. They said, 'We will help you make it through this,' and they meant it. I am thankful for my parents and Matt's parents for their love and support. I am thankful to Matt's ex-wife Mindy for her support and the help she has given me through this. While she is dealing with her own heartbreak, she still had time to comfort me. She will never truly know what her friendship means to me.
"I'm thankful that God gave me another day on this earth so that I can complete my mission in life, whatever that might be. The only thing that I know for sure is I will strive daily to be a better person than I was yesterday, because Matt would want that.
"I want to really say how thankful I am for our kids. They have been my rocks, my shoulders to cry on, the warm hug-givers, the phone calls and texts. They have been awesome. They are strong individuals who have been through more in life than anyone should ever have to go through, but they still have turned into wonderful human beings who I am proud to call mine. I just hope that they know I am always here for them no matter what.
"I love them to the ends of the Earth!"