Life Lessons

When Zaid Came to Visit

Before he died, Richard Feynman said, “By the time people die, a lot of what is good about them has rubbed off on other people. So although they are dead, they won’t be completely gone.” My Zaid died a decade ago on December 20, 2012. After I had an accident skiing, Zaid surprised me with a visit.

My Skiing Accident

You know how sometimes people get injured in these freak accidents that no one could have predicted—like the woman walking down the street only to be flattened by a runaway piano? This was not one of those accidents.

We were skiing in Colorado. It was the end of the first day of our vacation and Blake was telling me, “My group was too easy today. We spent the whole day doing really easy stuff.” So I figured I’d take Blake on something fun. I saw a black diamond (most difficult) run that Abigail bailed out on earlier in the day because it was too hard.

“Why don’t we go on that?” I said.

“Nah,” Blake said, “I’m pretty tired. Let’s go on something easier.”

So we went down this easy green circle and I saw some trees next to us. “That looks like fun!” I said, as we went off the side of the trail seeking some end-of-day adventure.

I was tired and Blake got his skis caught up in the snow. Blake, panicking, said “Dad! We shouldn’t be in here. I’m really tired. Let’s just get out of here.” 

I started to panic too. I saw a little path through some trees and figured I could easily get out. I’d quickly go through the trees and I’d be home free. 

Here’s what I remember. I started off between the pine trees through the uneven snow. Bump-ed-y bump-ed-y bump-ed-y bump over the snow and it was over. I’d done this tons of times skiing. That was a bit bumpy” I thought, but at least I made it.

The next thing I knew, I was on the ground with a Ski Patrol guy asking me, “What day is it?”

“That’s a really good question,” I thought, expecting the answer to come to me after a short pause. It didn’t. “The winter,” I thought. “Yes, it’s probably winter based on the snow.”

I was on the Ski Patrol sled ready to be taken down the mountain in a neck brace. I’d had a minor concussion and been knocked unconscious for 30 seconds. Blake had just taken a First Aid class and learned to roll me over on my side so that I wouldn’t choke on my vomit. Then he called for help and a nearby skier called Ski Patrol.

As it turns out, I didn’t do so well on that slope. As I went down, there was a small 6-foot cliff cut out of the side of the mountain that I didn’t see. When I hit it, I went flying and banged my head onto the snow. The concussion gave me amnesia so I didn’t remember the fall. That’s why I thought I did well on the slope.

Blake said, “I feel somewhat responsible here. What could I have done so that you wouldn’t have gotten hurt?”

“Blake, you’re 13. Most of the time, you never take responsibility and it’s almost always your fault. But today, it’s completely my fault.”

When going skiing, there are a few rules passed down through the ages. Ignore these rules at your own peril. Rules like:

  1. Don’t do anything crazy on the last run. The last run is when you get hurt.
  2. Don’t panic.
  3. When you go into trees, be cautious.
  4. In new environments, go with someone who knows the area.

I ignored all of these rules and paid the consequences. The concussion was relatively minor and went away shortly. However, I did have Skier’s Thumb, a hyperextension of the thumb that ruptured the ligament.(1)Many people get skiers thumb by holding their poles incorrectly. Or you could get it like I did, by banging my pole into my hand during the fall. At least I think that’s what happened. But remember, I had amnesia.

Zaid’s Arm

So I’m stuck in a splint, unable to use my thumb when I thought of my Zaid,(2)Zaid is Yiddish for grandfather. Norman Schlaff. Zaid had a very successful career creating and growing an electrical engineering firm, Norcon(3)The name Norcon is a portmanteau of the names Norman, my Zaid, and Connie, his wife. Norcon builds sound systems for corporations and stadiums and also manufactures the Talk-Thru unit, the through-glass intercom you see when buying tickets.

Zaid was born with one bad arm, his right one. As family lore has it, Zaid’s mother had diabetes and he was born weighing 12 or 13 lbs. The one-eyed doctor who delivered and injured his older brother delivered him at home. During the delivery, he injured the nerve in Zaid’s arm. So Zaid lived the 84 years of his life with only one good arm. His left arm was enormous, having to do the work of two arms.

Zaid never let it bother him. He would tell me stories about growing up playing baseball by swinging a bat with one hand and catching and throwing with that same arm. In gym class, Zaid could do 8 one-armed-pull ups, more than anyone else in the class but he couldn’t do any with two arms.

So I found myself with my wrist in a splint, unable to use my right hand, and I was thinking of Zaid. I was thinking about how difficult it was to tie shoelaces with one hand. Zaid would always wear Velcro sneakers because of that. I remembered that no one can open a ketchup packet with one hand. So Zaid would tear it open with his mouth, using his teeth like an extra pair of fingers.

Zaid’s Hand

While Zaid’s right arm wasn’t usable, his right hand was unique. His fingers were always pink and plump. He couldn’t move them around. It was kind of like having a meek friendly appendage, unable to make a fist.

When we got home from skiing, I learned that I needed surgery on my thumb. It’s a standard surgery where the doctor re-attaches the torn ligament to the bone. If the surgery is done within 3 weeks of the injury, the ligament is still flexible enough to rejoin the bone. If it’s longer than that, the doctor needs to perform Tommy John surgery.

So I went for surgery right when I came back with the wonderful Dr. Rettig. It was a quick surgery where Dr. Rettig knocked me out with Propoftol and put a nerve block on my right arm. While the Propoftol wore off in a couple of hours, the nerve block stayed around for almost a day. The crazy thing was that the nerve block made my right hand into Zaid’s right hand. I couldn’t control my fingers or make a fist. My fingers were limp and swollen, like a newborn baby—just like Zaid’s. I couldn’t control my arm. It would just flop around. But I was excited to see Zaid’s hand on my arm, knowing that it would go away shortly. As the night grew later, my hand started coming back to me, nerve by nerve, and Zaid’s hand left.

Now I have a month with this cast on, unable to use my right hand. Even though it’s a pain in the butt to have this temporary disability, it makes me happy to think of Zaid. I’m inspired by how he overcame his disability and never let him get it down. And when I’m having problems with my right hand, I still have his tips like how to open the ketchup packets with my teeth.


1 Many people get skiers thumb by holding their poles incorrectly. Or you could get it like I did, by banging my pole into my hand during the fall. At least I think that’s what happened. But remember, I had amnesia.
2 Zaid is Yiddish for grandfather.
3 The name Norcon is a portmanteau of the names Norman, my Zaid, and Connie, his wife