Last wish: Tell the world to laugh

June 23, 1998|By Stacey Patton | Stacey Patton,SUN STAFF

During the fall of his senior year at Yale University, David Saltzman, a resident of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., walked out of the infirmary with bad news. He had expected to be diagnosed with the flu or possibly walking pneumonia. Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system, never crossed his mind.

Hearing the news, Saltzman went out to a patch of lawn covered with dead leaves, sat by a tree and cried.

As he sat there, he started listening to his sobs and thinking how much they sounded like his laughs. So he got up from the pile of dead leaves, wiped his tears and walked off laughing at how silly and how scary the world is.

He died later in a California hospital. But this week, his mother, Barbara Saltzman, will bring his laughter back to life.

Before David's death in 1990, shortly before his 23rd birthday and not long after graduating magna cum laude, he had made a wish: to have the message of his senior project published and spread to the young and old alike.

This week, at several appearances in the Baltimore area, his mother will read from that message, now published in the form of a children's book, "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle" (The Jester Co., $20). She'll also donate copies to local hospitals.

Eight years after her youngest son's death, Saltzman, 57, recalls that fall day when her son learned of the football-sized tumor in his chest.

"It was a crisp day," she said. "I was on the West Coast and he was on the East Coast. David had been having a really bad cough for quite some time. I told him he needed to see a doctor."

She figured her son hadn't been taking good care of himself because, like most college students, he was far away from home.

When the doctor told her David needed a biopsy, the former Los Angeles Times entertainment editor hopped on the next plane to New Haven.

"It was a horrific experience," she said. "It's a parent's worst nightmare. I would have done anything to give him my life."

While David took chemotherapy and radiation, he continued his major in English and art, and maintained straight A's. For his senior project, he wrote and illustrated a 64-page children's book. Though the cancer progressed, David was determined to finish the book. He scribbled away on drawing pads during hospital stays, and at home he spent hours in the studio his father set up for him in their garage.

The idea for the book started before David was diagnosed. In a class, he had told a joke and no one laughed. Everyone was in a bad mood, caught up in their own lives, their own work and their own problems. Feeling rejected, he doodled a jester.

He began to sketch and paint a tale of the Jester and his sidekick, Pharley, banished from the castle because the king no longer thinks they are funny. The Jester and Pharley are forced out into the world to search for laughter. But it is no easy task. On their quest, they're constantly beaten down by the rest of the world.

"It's kind of hard to laugh or joke when you're unemployed and completely broke," says one down-and-out man in the book. "I have no job. I have no money. So tell me, Jester, what's so funny?"

"Here I lie, I have a tumor, and you ask me where's my sense of humor?" a cancer patient scolds the Jester. "I've been very sick. I'm so tired of trying. I don't feel like laughing. I just feel like crying."

The Jester and Pharley don't give up their search. Ultimately, they discover that laughter lives inside of us all, no matter what.

"Whenever I feel like crying, I smile hard instead! I turn my sadness upside down and stand it on its head!" says the Jester.

The Jester's words became David's message. His dying wish was to have that message told to as many people as possible.

Acting on the promise they made their son, Barbara and Joe Saltzman set out to get the senior project published. New York publishers told them a 64-page children's story was too long, but "there was no way we were going to cut anything from the book," said Barbara Saltzman. "We were going to publish it just the way David wanted it."

So the Saltzmans took out a second mortgage on their home and borrowed money from friends to print the book.

It was published in October 1995. Today, it's in its fifth printing. In two years, "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle" sold more than 230,000 copies. More than 25,000 copies have been donated to youngsters with cancer and other special needs.

By spring 1996, "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle" was on the New York Times adult-fiction best seller list. By that Christmas, it had made the Los Angeles Times and USA Today best seller lists.

"Now all the big publishing companies want a piece of the book," Saltzman said.

Saltzman eventually quit her job at the Los Angeles Times and today, with the help of her family, she oversees the Jester Co., formed to print and distribute David's book.

Saltzman averages three appearances a week doing readings and discussions in schools, hospitals, libraries and bookstores.

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