A freak accident opened her eyes to the blessings that had been showered upon her.
- Posted on Jan 23, 2015
There are days when we can feel as if we have woken up in somebody else’s life, when our surest assumptions, assumptions we may have come to take for granted, are suddenly upended, our personal verities swept away. It is shocking and almost always painful. And sometimes it is transformative.
Heidi Siefkas thought she had it all—a devoted husband, a marketing job that gave her the opportunity to travel the world, a lifestyle she always wanted. She and A.J. made their home in Florida, but with all her traveling and with A.J. studying at the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hudson Valley, it was hard to be together.
Heidi did everything she could to connect around his schedule. Maybe that’s when the doubts first seeped into her subconscious—not really thoughts at all, just something that nagged at her. More often now, A.J. fended off her visits with excuses: His brother was visiting for the weekend from Boston; he had a major project due at the institute. After all, the institute was the door to his future.
Heidi and A.J. had met and fallen madly in love years before, when they both worked in a restaurant. Heidi knew how important A.J.’s career was to him. They dreamed of someday opening a restaurant together. But Heidi’s greatest dream in life was to see A.J.’s dreams come true.
This time Heidi had arranged to stay with A.J. for a week, planning to work remotely from his apartment in Poughkeepsie while he attended classes. Alone in his place she couldn’t get settled. She had a feeling that something wasn’t right. A.J. seemed distracted, distant.
And there were little things, like the bottle of barbecue sauce in the fridge. A.J. made his own marinade. He’d never buy bottled sauce. Heidi decided she was being silly. She and A.J. were in love. “We always have been,” she heard herself say.
The fall sun had painted the Hudson Valley in brilliant hues. She decided to take a hike through the Shawangunk Mountains to clear her head and to shake off the guilt she was feeling for doubting her husband. A.J. was her whole world. Wasn’t she his? Already she was feeling better, her old self again, in the sharp autumnal air.
Yet as soon as she set foot in that apartment again everything fell apart. She fell apart. A.J.’s computer was on. She tapped its mouse. The screen lit up, revealing a letter from a woman, a younger woman, somebody Heidi recognized as A.J.’s old coworker.
In a level of detail that was far more than what was strictly required, the woman laid out her romance with Heidi’s husband...the vacations they’d taken, the hours they had lain in each other’s arms, their plans for the future, their future.
Heidi could have packed her things and left. Instead she texted A.J.: Come home NOW. She waited and paced. She didn’t want to accept that her marriage was over, certainly not in this tawdry way.
He came home but he wouldn’t talk. Heidi wanted to understand. Maybe she could win him back. Maybe this wasn’t the end. Maybe there was an explanation.
Or maybe A.J. would just plop down on the couch and watch football. Which is exactly what he did. Heidi was frustrated and hurt by his silence as much as by his apparent betrayal. She needed to clear her head. Angrily she grabbed the kitchen garbage, stormed outside and was about to hurl it into the Dumpster...when everything went black.
She woke up five days later in the ICU. Her mother was there from Massachusetts. How long had it been since she’d talked to her mother? She sensed A.J.’s presence. Still not talking much. He helped her piece together what had happened.
A perfectly healthy tree limb had broken and fallen 40 feet onto her head. Paramedics found her breathing but unconscious. Doctors diagnosed severe head trauma, brain hemorrhaging and a cracked vertebra. She needed surgery and a long recovery.
“It was a freak accident,” one of the doctors said. Heidi wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Or something else. She was in too much pain to think about the letter, although she hadn’t forgotten it. Which was unusual. There is almost always retrograde amnesia following a serious head injury. But she remembered the letter—every word.
It took a week and a half for her condition to stabilize sufficiently for the doctors to perform the tricky surgery. She went back to A.J.’s to recover. But it was her mother who cared for her, cooking her hot, healthy meals, making sure she had sweaters big enough to fit over her full-body brace and keep her warm now that fall had turned to winter.
Old friends and coworkers called or came to visit. Patsy, her boss’s executive assistant, sent a care package with a box set of the sitcom Cheers. Diana, a young woman Heidi used to supervise, sent a gift of cheese from Wisconsin. Every day her phone was filled with encouraging texts and jokes.
Even when A.J. was there—which wasn’t often—he wasn’t there, as if he appeared in gray when everyone else was in color; as if that tree branch had removed him from her life. In a way, it had. She didn’t need to hear the truth from him. She knew the truth.
Her life consisted of so much more than A.J. Friends, family, coworkers. “My clan,” she called them. Her dependence on A.J. had eclipsed all that love. Not anymore. Her marriage was broken long before the tree branch fell—only now did she have the strength to leave it behind. And look toward a new life.
Heidi still believes in true love. She has a new career and a new man in her life. The branch changed everything. A branch that fell from a perfectly good tree on a perfectly still day.
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Heidi Seifkas is the author of When All Balls Drop: The Upside of Losing Everything (Wheatmark, 2014).