Mort Laitner
Mort Laitner

The Greatest Gift

My office phone rang six times before I picked up the receiver.

I heard my mom’s voice.

“Hello Mort.”

“Hi Mom. How are you doing?”

Something was wrong.

Mom’s words trembled.

“Son, I got my test results.”

She paused, “My doctor says I have pancreatic cancer.”

Fear paralyzed my body.

“Mom, you’ll be okay.”

Tears ran onto my moving lips.

“You are a survivor.

You survived Auschwitz.

You survived a death march in the heart of winter.

You’ll not only survive cancer but you’ll beat it.”

The “C” word burned my throat as if it were coated in acid.

What else could I say?

“I’ll see you tonight. We’ll work on a plan. I’ll start researching the disease and how to treat it. I love you. Goodbye.”

“Thanks. We’ll beat this together. I love you.”

I hung up the phone, realizing I knew nothing about pancreatic cancer.

I started my search.

And within two hours, I had read and taken notes from 20 articles.

What I learned totally discouraged me.

In article after article, one number kept appearing — six.

Each medical study opined, patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer died in six months.

Experimental-treatment success rates were one in a million.

I kept this information away from my mother.

The following week, we met with Mom’s oncologist.

A young, handsome doctor, wearing a white coat and a black name tag, who mom treated like a God.

He recommended a regimen of chemotherapy.

She accepted.

In exchange for hope and the dream of additional days, Mom endured weeks of needles sticks.

Wincing as nurses poked needles into the blue veins of her arm, the same arm that bore the number 52803.

The needles interlocked with tubes, which connected to IV bags, which were filled with some unknown yellowish fluid we called, “chemo.”

Mom had been turned into a human guinea pig.

I, into a chauffeur, an entertainer and a cheerer-upper.

While the chemo flowed into her veins, I read Mom stories.

We reminisced about the good-old days when dad was alive.

We laughed.

We cried.

We prayed.

Mom lived on a diet of hope.

As number 52803, my mom believed in hope, G-d and chemo.

After three months of chemo, Mom scheduled her oncologist appointment to find out if  the chemo had killed the cancer?

I drove her to Baptist Hospital, silently praying to hear the doctor say one word, “remission.”

I focused in on Mom sitting in the doctor’s waiting room.

She appeared nervous but hopeful.

This young, handsome oncologist, wearing the white coat and the black name tag called us into his office.

We sat and he stood.

Softly, but rather, matter-of-factly, he looked Mom in the eyes and said, “Sorry, the experimental treatment failed.

There is nothing else I can recommend to for you.”

A tight-clenched fist slammed into my solar plexus — knocking the wind out of my lungs.

As I gasped for air, I looked at Mom’s face.

Gallantly holding back her tears, she looked like she had not heard the doctor’s words.

But in a split second, in front of my eyes, my mother aged 10 years.

Hope vanished — stealing Mom’s pallor, smile and disposition.

I left the doctor’s office, to get Mom’s car.

Walking through the hospital corridors, heading toward the garage, I cried uncontrollably—not caring if anyone noticed.

By the time I drove to the front of the hospital, I had pulled myself together.

Silently, I drove back to Mom’s home, wondering why our prayers went unanswered.

For the next three months, I watched Mom deteriorate.

I reread Kübler-Ross’s classic — On Death and Dying.

I followed her journey from denial, to anger, to bargaining, to depression, and, finally, to acceptance.

A journey that shriveled her body, but not the number tattooed on her arm.

My sister and I brought in a hospice worker.

This angel of mercy gave us the comfort and assurance.

“Both of you will survive this ordeal. You are the children of a survivor.”

My sister and I decided to rotate nights staying up with Mom.

The first night, Mom suffered terribly.

She spewed hateful words on my sister.

The next morning, I heard about those horrible words.

And I prayed, that I would be spared her verbal agony.

That afternoon, the doctor called and ordered, “I’m going to increase your mom’s number of morphine drops to six and to put her on a no-food-or-liquid regimen.”

The hospice worker opined, “I think this will be your mother’s last day.”

In my head, I calculated that it was exactly six months from that fateful office telephone call.

That night, I held Mom’s hands.

My words trembled, “I’m going to miss you so much. Say hi to Dad for me. I love you.”

And my mom uttered her last three words, “I love you.”

Within an hour, Mom passed away.

My sister and I cried like abandoned orphans.

Twenty-one years have passed since that dreadful day, but I constantly think about Mom, realizing that her parting words were the greatest gift she had ever given me.

About the Author
Florida's Jewish short-story writer, speaker, film producer and retired attorney. He has authored, "A Hebraic Obsession", "The Hanukkah Bunny" and "The Greatest Gift." He produced an award-winning short film entitled, "The Stairs". Movie can be viewed on my TOI blog. Mort is a correspondent for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel Jewish Journal.
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