POZ Exclusives : The Mother of All Battles - by James Wortman

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May 14, 2008

The Mother of All Battles

by James Wortman

Freda Wagman

POZ: You’ve written a memoir, Snippets From the Trenches, which details the experiences you and your and late son, Gary, shared with HIV. How does your story begin?

Freda Wagman and her son, Gary

Freda Wagman: In early 1983, Gary called me and said his barber noticed a lump on his neck. He was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Back then, everybody just knew AIDS was a death sentence and it could be very fast. Nobody knew very much else about it. So I called his doctor to ask what I could do. I ended up volunteering with the AIDS Foundation in Houston, which needed someone to do some office typing. 

The foundation was a skeleton crew. We were winging it. The city of Houston was not maintaining any epidemiology records, and the city didn’t require it of the health department. So they had no information to go on. And this group of people realized that other cities were getting funding because they were keeping records. There was such a need, but since records weren’t kept, we didn’t have the information we needed to get grants or anything. So this group protested and demanded that the city council get on the stick.

And where did this work take you?

I thought, “OK, I guess I’m in now because this cause means so much to me.” And also, I was trying to prepare myself for whatever my son and I might have to deal with. My life with all the other people, the volunteers who eventually became ill themselves and died, was very full in and of itself.

My book tells about my learning experience and my own growth, and watching what my son was doing with his life. He started out telling me all of his lab numbers and then he decided not to, because he said, “I don’t want to worry you and there’s nothing to worry about.” So I said “So, do you think I’ll worry any less not knowing?” And he said, “Well, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

So as far as I know he stayed healthy for a very long time. In the later years when I was out there, I would see more medications on the dining room table, or then it got to where I would go to the drugstore with him. And then he didn’t go into the hospital until almost 13 years after his diagnosis.

That was a very bad time. He went into the emergency room in San Jose because he was visiting relatives there for Thanksgiving. And he went back to work after New Year’s and he just never got over the AIDS-related pneumonia, I guess, because he died in April of 1994. But he worked until the day he went into the hospital, which was his birthday, in April. And then he died 10 days later.

An HIV diagnosis in those days often created a distance between parent and child. But it seems to have brought you and Gary closer together.

We were always very, very close. I raised him mostly by myself. His father saw him every week, but they weren’t very close. And I don’t really know of any impact that his father had on Gary’s personality. Well, actually, he never told his father he was gay until after he was living in California. And I never told his father either. We didn’t hate each other, but we didn’t have anything to do with each other either.

A lot of people who’ve read my book have remarked about my closeness with Gary. The  [HIV-positive] gay men who’ve read it say, “I’ve always wondered how a mother feels. I still can’t come out to my mother, and she’s going to be devastated when I tell her I’m HIV positive.” And they’re sort of fascinated that a mother could be so close and supportive. I don’t see how any mother can’t be close and supportive. It boggles my mind that parents disown their children. That’s a very important point in the book that some of the reviewers have said.

What do you think that Gary would say about your continued work in the AIDS community?

Oh, he’d say, “You go, Mom!” There’s this one Mother’s Day card he’d sent me that says, “It’s so good to have a mom like you.” And after the printed poetry it says, “I feel we’ve grown a lot and learned a lot about each other in the last few years. Because of the virtues described in this poem, the process of growth, love and respect has been easier and deeper. With much love, Gary.”

To learn more about Snippets from the Trenches and to order a copy, contact Freda Wagman at Freda.Wagman@SBCGlobal.net


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