Bar mitzvah marks multiple milestones for Oaklanders

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Like most moms planning a bar mitzvah that is just a few weeks away, Denise Sherer Jacobson is a busy woman.

And like most bar mitzvahs, "it's going to be a big moment," she says, when her son, David, steps up on the bimah at Temple Sinai in Oakland. But this particular moment on Dec. 18 may be a bit bigger than many.

Jacobson and her husband, Neil, have cerebral palsy, use wheelchairs and have adopted their son. As an infant, David mistakenly was thought to have mild cerebral palsy himself. Jacobson chronicled the story of David's adoption and their lives together in her recently published book, "The Question of David: A Disabled Mother's Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life."

"He's going to read the same Torah portion as his father did for his bar mitzvah, because they're born on the same day," said Jacobson, 49, in a recent interview in the family's Rockridge home.

Besides that coincidental sharing of birthdays on Dec. 19, Jacobson writes how she knew from the start that the trio was meant to be a family.

She describes how she made an instant connection with David when she traveled to St. Louis in February 1987 to see him for the first time. "Tears streamed down my cheeks. 'My baby, my baby,' I blubbered and pulled him close to me…A buzz of voices murmured above us. I didn't look up. I just held onto my precious David."

With humor and pathos, Jacobson writes about the family's daily routine, significant moments and the initial resistance to the adoption by some relatives. Fearful that the adoption wouldn't be approved, Jacobson tells how that anxiety disappeared when the family-court judge readily signed the papers and asked to pose with the family for pictures afterward.

The new parents ran through a series of caregivers, but also found many supportive friends. Jacobson describes how changing David's diapers sometimes took up to 40 minutes because of her physical disability. "Intermittently, I'd stop my labor and talk to him," she writes. "He'd smile and blabber back. His patience made my effort possible."

Later, Jacobson recounts how she was practically ignored by paramedics when David, at 4, cut his finger badly in the belt of her wheelchair. The paramedics were prepared to take David off to the hospital without her. However, Jacobson was adamant about staying with her son. Eventually, medics placed the two on a stretcher and put Jacobson's wheelchair in the front seat of the ambulance.

When one of the paramedics later noted how hard it must be to have a child, Jacobson replied, "The hardest thing is having other people assume that I'm not capable of being a parent."

In the interview, Jacobson said she didn't write her book with any message in mind. "I wanted to tell a good story," she said. "I wanted people to be able to identify with other feelings that I went through as a woman, as a mother, as a disabled person."

The book ends when David is almost 6. Today, he's a seventh-grade student who plays the guitar and steel drums and likes art and karate. As for early concerns about his development, David has just a mild problem with auditory processing, she says.

Asked about her son's Torah study, Jacobson replies: "He's being a typical 13-year-old."

The family has a busy schedule. Jacobson works part time as an oral historian at the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley. She's involved in a project documenting the independent living movement in Berkeley. Neil Jacobson is a senior vice president in charge of computer operations at Wells Fargo Bank.

The couple has tried to help David feel comfortable about his parents' disabilities. The lessons apparently have paid off.

Jacobson described how people sometimes approach her and her son when they go out together and tell David, "You're such a good boy. You take good care of your mother."

With a response far older than his years, David replies, "No, she takes good care of me."