Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Mother's book details her losing only son to AIDS


Gary Wagman with his mother Freda in 1988 during a family picnic in Bellaire, Texas. Photo: Elliot Moser
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A black-and-white photo of a smiling Gary Wagman adorns the cover of Snippets from the Trenches: A mother's AIDS memoir written by Freda Wagman. Yet the book doesn't recount Wagman's fight to live with AIDS throughout the 1980s in San Francisco until his death on April 21, 1995.

The self-published book, which came out in paperback in late 2007, instead offers a window into how one woman coped with having her only child be diagnosed with what was then a little understood fatal disease and offered comfort to dozens of other gay men living with AIDS in her home state of Texas.

"I feel it has not been given enough attention – a mother's voice," Wagman said in a phone interview this week.

As devastating as the news was in 1983 that Gary had contracted HIV, Wagman did find purpose within her grief and sadness at the thought she would outlive her son.

"For most of my life, up to 1983, I had searched for a cause, a means of contributing to the betterment of society, or even a small part of it that needed help," writes Wagman in the forward to her book.

She goes on to write that, "even though I was devastated by what was happening – history in the making – I thought I was giving of myself. And the most wonderful thing happened to me. I was getting what I felt I had been missing for so much of my life: appreciation, attention, recognition, social activity, and above all, love!"

Wagman's story is a real life example of the old adage that when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. As she recounts in her memoir, her son's battle with AIDS not only brought them closer but it also led to her making new friends, assisting other parents with children living with AIDS, and educating people about the need to protect themselves.

"My greatest reward came from the pride my son had for what I was doing," writes Wagman, who lives in Bellaire, Texas, a small city surrounded by Houston.

The book is broken into chapters about several of the men she met through her work with various AIDS and gay organizations in the Houston area.

"The reason it turned out mostly about me and these other men and why each chapter is dated at the end is it tells my growth and the strength I was gaining to supposedly cope with it. I learned something from each of these men," said Wagman.

The chapters that focus on her son often recount their vacations together and offer a chronological picture of how AIDS affected his health.

"On each of those vacations I would see his deterioration, his mental health," said Wagman, adding that, "It wasn't designed to do what it did but it showed my growth and development as a caregiver."

Born in Toledo, Ohio, she grew up in Detroit one of nine children in a Jewish household. At 17 years old she moved to Texas to live with two of her brothers and soon married Bob Wagman. They divorced when Gary was nine.

After graduating from college Gary made his way to San Francisco in 1981 and worked for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at UC Berkeley. Mother and son remained close and would vacation together by taking trips to see national parks like Yosemite. Freda spent most holidays with her son.

"I miss him terribly. It has now been 15 years and I still can't get over it," Wagman said. "Gary and I were very close."

She said she wrote the book with two audiences in mind, gay men afraid to disclose to their families that they are not only gay but also have HIV or AIDS and for parents trying to cope with the unexpected death of a child.

"I feel both parties are hurting. The parents will hurt and the child is lonely out there," said Wagman. "If I have succeeded in helping one person in making their life feel better from something I said then it is all worth it to me."

She said she hopes in reading her story gay men will find the courage to talk to their parents about having AIDS rather than hiding it from them until it is too late.

"From a selfish point of view, I would like to think my child would be sharing something going on in their life. Particularly when it is possible he is going to die before I do, it is important to tell them," said Wagman. "I couldn't imagine Gary and I being that way."

She also sees the book as a way to keep Gary's memory alive.

"I wanted the world to know Gary Wagman was here and he was a good person," she said. "Whether anyone will read this after I am gone is anyone's guess."

After Gary died Wagman scattered his ashes at Pinnacles National Monument south of Gilroy. She returned there in 2000 but hasn't visited since.

In the book she mentions that she kept a recording of Gary's message on her answering machine to let her know he was okay following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. She said she has only listened to it a few times.

"I listened to the tape once or twice shortly after he died. Then I just couldn't do it anymore," said Wagman. "I think I want to but it is scary to me."

Wagman will be reading from her book and signing autographs at A Different Light Bookstore on Castro Street at 4 p.m. this Saturday, May 8.

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