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FOR A FAMILY, MUCH IS LOST IN AN INSTANT

One tragic night nearly costs a life and now costs a family their present and future.

Sandy Honeycutt apologizes for the clutter.

She shouldn't.

Boxes filled with family pictures wait for a new home because the bank just took this one back. It doesn't seem possible after almost a decade.

Sandy and her husband of 35 years, Preston, once took great pride showcasing their interior decoration skills. They enjoyed launching a boat out back, heading to the Gulf of Mexico. Now they have to find a place to rent, and not just any place. This one has to be special and somehow affordable.

They don't deny missing many months of mortgage payments. And although they are disappointed that they missed getting into a federal program designed to help people like them stave off foreclosure, "the bank has been civil,'' she said. "They're not booting us out in the street, at least not right away.''

Losing their house is serious, but it pales in contrast to the agony they've endured since a trooper knocked on their door at 4:30 in the morning on Dec. 9, 2009.

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Preston heard the sirens coming from U.S. 19, only a half-mile away. His first thought: "I hope that's not Janelle.''

She was their first of three children, attractive and funny, the life of any party. At Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, Va., she had been a cheerleader. She studied to be a paralegal and managed an office. At 21, she married a computer software expert and they bought a house. Five years later, they divorced.

Janelle sought refuge in Florida where her parents had moved in 2003. She struggled to find work in St. Petersburg and moved in with the family in New Port Richey. In time she found a boyfriend. As her mom recalls, "She was starting to get happy again.''

Shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2009, Sandy Honeycutt drove home. As she came to Floramar Terrace, the entrance to Gulf Harbors, she witnessed police and emergency crews at work. Sandy drove on, unaware that the victims were Janelle and Michael Taylor. They had tried to cross the notorious six-lane highway when an 82-year-old woman in a 2003 Honda Accord hit them.

Police didn't assign blame. Janelle got the worst of it, suffering a traumatic brain injury. Surgeons removed a portion of her skull to relieve swelling. She spent five months at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Her parents drove an hour every day to be with her.

When she was injured, Janelle was between jobs and had no health insurance. Medicaid picked up big-ticket expenses, including nursing home care. But after she finally came home in September, it became clear to her parents that her progress would depend on resources they didn't have.

Sandy had been a successful Realtor. Preston had installed drapes and blinds. They quit to care for their daughter. An auto insurance settlement helped with some expenses, as did generosity of friends, including Janelle's many friends in Virginia who conducted fundraisers.

But it wasn't enough. They needed a specially equipped van and other equipment. The bills mounted. They stopped paying on their mortgage. They had been social; now each day was the same. Lift Janelle, force her to stand and move muscles. Monitor her medications. Make her breathe in to get more oomph behind words that sometimes only Sandy and Preston can understand.

They see her progress, though she has had setbacks and terrible fevers. Sandy knows there are so many out there who want regular updates, so she signs on to the Caring Bridge website. She has posted 80 updates.

Sandy allows herself one diversion from the daily duty: Jazzercise at the New Port Richey Recreation Center. They attend physical therapy sessions three times a week at Community Hospital. They join others with similar lives in a support group. Preston cries a bit every day. "I remember the daughter I had before the accident,'' he says. "It makes me sad.''

But they press on. It helps that every now and then Janelle shows some of the mischief that once defined her personality. She raises a middle finger and flashes a crooked smile. Sometimes when people talk about her as if she's not in the same room, she reminds them: "I'M STILL HERE!''

Her parents believe she will make more progress come June when she is eligible for Medicare. Maybe then, they say, she will get the speech and occupational therapy that benefits others with traumatic brain injuries.

They never expected this to be their late-50s lifestyle, but that's the reality. Life can change in an instant, they say. Take nothing for granted.

They would like to return to work, but that will have to wait.

Where they will live remains uncertain.

Margie Prichard is Sandy's friend. When she learned about the foreclosure, she expressed sorrow and concern.

"Margie,'' Sandy told her, "it's just a house.''

- bstevens@tampabay.com

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FAST FACTS

The Honeycutts

Contact the Honeycutts at srhoneycutt@tampabay.rr.com. A detailed account of their two-year struggle can be found at www.caringbridge.org/visit/janellehoneycutt.

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