Heidi Siefkas' failed marriage and nearly fatal accident were blessings in disguise.
Posted in , Jan 23, 2015
Heidi Siefkas of Plantation, Florida, thought she had it all—a devoted husband, success as a marketing executive in the travel industry, and the glamorous lifestyle she’d always desired, jet-setting around the world for conferences in Paris one week and Mexico City the next.
Then one crisp September afternoon, she discovered a letter on her husband’s computer that revealed a shocking secret: He’d been unfaithful. In her book, When All Balls Drop: The Upside of Losing Everything, Heidi admits she didn’t know how to go on—until a freak accident put everything into perspective. We asked Heidi about her journey from hurt to healing.
When did you first come across the letter?
I was visiting Poughkeepsie, New York for a week, where my husband, A.J., was living while he went to culinary school. We’d been married for ten years.
I’d just returned from a hike in the Shawangunk Hills in the Hudson River Valley. I walked into the studio apartment and had this unsettling feeling. I took a shower and the feeling was still there, like he’d been hiding something. He was at his restaurant job until later that evening. His computer was on. I tapped the mouse, and the screen lit up.
What did you find?
A letter from a much younger woman I recognized as A.J.’s old coworker: Twelve pages of detailed stories about their year-long relationship. Vacations they had taken together. Plans they had for their future. Their “monogamous” relationship. Her visits to that very studio apartment.
My deepest, darkest fears were jumping off of the computer screen, page by page. I remembered the times I’d wanted to come up for a visit and he’d said that his brother would be in from Boston, or that he couldn’t get off work. Was any of it true?
When did you confront him?
I texted him at work, “Come home NOW!” He called. The hair on my arms was standing on end as I told him that I knew everything. He promised to explain himself later. I spent the rest of the day rereading the letter, playing back things I’d overlooked but that now, in hindsight, seemed like red flags.
It sounds ridiculous, but I’d found a bottle of barbecue sauce in A.J.’s fridge. He was studying to be a chef and absolutely hated barbecue sauce. Was it the other woman’s?
What happened that night?
He came home and said, “Look, we’ve both had a very long day, let’s talk about this tomorrow, okay?” He slept on the floor while I tossed and turned in bed. How could I sleep in the same spot where they had been together?
The next morning, his idea was to go for a drive to get breakfast. I was too distraught to eat, so we spent hours driving along the Hudson. He still wouldn’t open up. I was raging mad—I just needed to hear the truth! We got back to the apartment, and A.J. sat on the couch with his laptop, watching football. I had to get out. I grabbed the trash and walked out the door.
Were you planning to leave him?
I was fuming, but I hadn’t packed my bags yet. I was holding onto a glimmer of hope that what I’d found wasn’t completely true. That’s the power a person has over someone else who is still in love. At that point, I was just trying to get away to clear my head.
What happened when you went outside?
I have absolutely no recollection. I remember walking out of the apartment building and heading toward the dumpster. Then it’s just black.
What’s the next thing you do remember?
I woke up in the ICU. My mother and A.J. were with me. I didn’t understand why my mom, who lives in Massachusetts, was there. They helped me put the pieces of the puzzle together.
A massive tree limb had fallen 40 feet right on my head and broken my neck. It clobbered me. The paramedics found me on the ground with the garbage thrown next to me. I wasn’t conscious, but I was breathing. I had a severe concussion, brain hemorrhaging and a cracked vertebra.
It took a week and a half for my condition to stabilize. I had surgery on my cervical 7 vertebra, and then I needed to wear a full-body brace while my spine healed, which would take four to six months of bed rest. I had limited mobility, and it was incredibly painful.
What did your husband do?
Mom couldn’t take a second week off work, so I left the hospital and went to A.J.’s studio. He massaged my legs and took me for short walks along the Hudson, to the Vanderbilt Mansion. But there were times when he left me alone for anywhere from 8 to 14 hours at a stretch.
I didn’t tell anyone about the affair. Most people thought the opposite, that things were stronger than ever between us. They saw his support at the hospital as a sign that he was grieving tremendously. In hindsight, I think it was much more of an act. My doctor said that I needed more TLC and that it would be in my best interest to be around my mother.
You went to stay with her. How did you feel about that?
I missed A.J., but being with my mom was a relief. Without asking she knew what I needed, like home-cooked food and winter clothes to keep me warm. She bought me zip-up sweatshirts and cardigans that would fit over my big brace and scarves to fill in the gaps.
Who else was there for you during your recovery?
What’s interesting is that people I hadn’t thought of as crucial friendships became essential. Family, of course, but friends and coworkers too. Patsy, my boss’s executive assistant, sent a care package with a box set of the sitcom Cheers. That small gesture meant so much. Humor was some of the best medicine I received in those bedridden months.
Diana, a young woman I used to supervise, sent a package full of cheese from Wisconsin, where I grew up. That touched me. Every day she texted me funny, witty messages, blips or pictures from her daily life—a welcome escape from my own confining reality. Both of these women have become a major part of my clan.
What do you mean, your “clan”?
A “clan” means that there’s a connection between a group of people and they protect one another. During my recovery, I realized that’s what I had—an intricately woven community of friends, family, and coworkers. I’d neglected them when I was with A.J.. Moving forward, I wanted to make sure that I nurtured each and every one of these relationships.
What about A.J.?
About four months after the tree branch accident, I was well enough to go home, even though I was still wearing my brace. Two very close friends from childhood flew from out of state to visit me.
We had a long weekend together, and they gave me a fresh perspective on my situation. I listened to their stories, and they listened to mine. I realized they had gone through infidelity too. By the end of the weekend I felt more like myself.
All those months, I’d thought I needed to hear the truth from A.J.. But why? There were pieces of evidence I couldn’t ignore, like phone records that showed he’d called the other woman 9 times when I was in the ER and the ICU. Photos of him and her at the Vanderbilt Mansion—Diana unearthed those through social media.
Finally I made my decision. I filed for a divorce. Around the same time, I was able to take my brace off. I hung it up in the closet. That was a very happy day.
Do you and A.J. keep in touch?
The last time that I saw him was a little before the divorce. We were sitting outside in our backyard. He commented that I looked healthy, looked like I was progressing. It was very civil. After our divorce he moved back to New York to finish culinary school. I don’t know where he is now.
Do you still believe in true love?
I do. After the divorce, I had no idea if I could ever love again. Then one day I was taking a helicopter flight lesson, something I’d never done before. My instructor and I hit it off. He was recently out of a long-term relationship, and had similar interests: Travel, kayaking, scuba-diving, all the adventurous things I love. We’ve been together for four years now.
If that tree branch hadn’t fallen, where would you be now?
I imagine that I’d still be working in marketing, still living in South Florida, perhaps even in that same house. Would I have gotten a divorce? Let’s face it. Changing is difficult.
I was given a second chance, and I reprioritized. My health came first, and then it was my relationships. My “clan.” I wouldn’t trade that in for anything in the world.
I didn’t hear anything before that tree branch fell. It wasn’t a windy day, it wasn’t rainy. My insurance company later found the tree to be perfectly healthy. There’s no earthly explanation for how that branch hit me. But it forced me to reflect. It was a blessing in disguise that touched every part of my life.
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Heidi Seifkas is the author of When All Balls Drop: The Upside of Losing Everything (Wheatmark, 2014).