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​A mother's promise

Before her son, David, died of cancer at age 22, Barbara Saltzman promised him that the children's book he wrote would not die with him, and that it would be shared with other children with cancer
A storybook mother 05:45

The story our "storybook mom" has to tell involves a talented son and his remarkable creation: A book for children that has long outlived him. Tracy Smith begins at the beginning...

If there were really such a thing as a storybook life, Joe and Barbara Saltzman seemed to have it. In the early 1960s, they lived and loved and worked and played in southern California, but the real magic happened when their sons arrived: Michael, and then David.

"Growing up they were just so darn cute," said Barbara. "And they always got us aggravated and annoyed! And in the end they were just such delights. They made our lives so wonderful."

Life, of course, wasn't always perfect -- it never is. But for Barbara and her boys, it was close enough.

Dad taught journalism at USC; mom was an L.A. Times editor. And the kids did OK, too: After graduating Yale, Michael Saltzman made a name for himself in the TV business, writing and producing shows like "Murphy Brown" and, later, "Mad Men."

Barbara Saltzman with her son, David. CBS News

Little brother David went to Yale as well, but instead of TV, he wanted to write children's books. His senior project, in fact, was a vividly-drawn 64-page book about a very happy court jester in a very sad kingdom, "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle."

The story turns when the jester makes a little girl with a tumor laugh out loud.

What did Joe think when he first saw his son's book? "Well, I was amazed at the quality of the illustrations," he said. "I didn't think he was very gifted as an artist, I never knew that. And suddenly I'm looking at this book and the illustrations are incredible. And then the message -- I mean, he's the only person in the world that would rhyme 'Sense of humor' with 'I have a tumor.' I'm mean, who rhymes like that? Who thinks like that?"

At the time, David had no idea that he'd soon have a hospital bed of his own.

During his senior year, he called his mom: "He said, 'I have good news for you. I'm gonna go to the doctor and get this cough cleared up.' And then he called from the doctor's office and he said, 'The doctor's saying something about Hodgkin's. I don't know what he's talking about.' And that night Joe and I were on the plane to New York."

Hodgkin's lymphoma, a kind of cancer, was destroying David's lungs, and the usual treatments just weren't working.

David finished his book, and in May 1989 graduated Yale with honors. But within weeks his health and his dreams faded. David Saltzman died in March 1990, just before his 23rd birthday. And just before he died, Barbara promised her son that his book would not die with him.

"David wanted to personally share 'The Jester Has Lost His Jingle' with children and read it to children," she said. "But when he no longer could, I vowed that I would make it happen.

"And his father Joe also made him that promise, and his brother, Michael, that we would see that the book would be published as he envisioned it, and that it would be given free to every child in the country with cancer."

It wasn't an easy promise to keep. Every year, more than 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer. But before the Saltzmans could even think about getting David's book out to those kids, they had to find someone willing to publish it.

"We took it to all the publishing houses and we were told 'It was too long,' 'rhyme doesn't sell anymore,' 'it's too expensive to make,'" said Michael. "And my mother felt all that was wrong."

Undaunted, Barbara convinced Joe to use their house as collateral, and the Saltzmans published the book themselves.

"She's like a benevolent Terminator," Michael laughed. "She will not be stopped. If she doesn;t get the answer from you, she'll keep asking until you give her the answer she wants."

In the 20 years since, Barbara has taken "The Jester" to every hospital she could find, to every cancer ward, and to every bedside, no matter how grim.

Barbara Saltzman shares her son's book, "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle," with a young patient. CBS News

Today, it's a bestseller, with more than a quarter of a million copies in circulation. But you can't measure its value in numbers alone.

Twenty years ago, Mark Kayton was a classmate of David's at Yale. Today, as a pediatric surgeon at New Jersey's Goryeb Children's Hospital, he's seen what his old friend's book can do.

"I've seen this help a lot of people and put a smile on their face, at times when you wouldn't predict people should be smiling," said Dr. Kayton.

"For whatever life they have on this planet, that book makes them laugh -- every night they go to bed laughing," said Joe Saltzman. "Maybe they don't make it, but the time they have on Earth, they've had a wonderful experience. And that's what this is all about."

It's been 20 years since "The Jester" was first published, but to Barbara, her son's words never get old -- and Barbara continues reading it to young cancer patients.

Smith asked Michael, "How long do you think she's going to continue doing this?"

"What the average lifespan of a woman in today's society?" Michael said. "'Cause it's going about to the day before she drops, I think, she'll be continuing it."

Storybooks can be magic, but few things are as powerful as a mother's love.

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