World AIDS Day comes close to home in service for James Frederick Wilson

James Frederick Wilson could recite the alphabet when he was 2 years old and could read a restaurant menu by the time he was 4. He loved to dance and was good at math.

On Jan. 16 of next year, he would have been 29 years old. But he died last year of an AIDS-related illness.


Tomorrow, Pat Wilson will remember her son during an ecumenical candlelight vigil in Oakland Mills to commemorate World AIDS Day, which this year has as its theme the effects of AIDS on the families of those with the disease.

"My son was gay, but he was also very loving and very bright," said Mrs. Wilson, a Sykesville paralegal who at one point moved out of her Sykesville home to help care for her ill son. "He was extremely sensitive and articulate."


In Howard County, there have been 124 reported AIDS cases since 1981, according to the county health department. Of those, 11 new cases have occurred since the start of this year.

The disease often brings emotional trauma and conflict of the kind suffered by the Wilsons, whose experience included a rift between father and son that was resolved just before the son's death in May 1993.

Family members recall the late Mr. Wilson as an inquisitive child who grew into a fun-loving young man just starting to find his way in the world.

"We always called him 'the $64,000 question,' " said Arlene Pycior, an aunt who helped care for Mr. Wilson during his illness. "He would drive you crazy with the questions."

Mr. Wilson also loved attention and was an adept public speaker by age 12.

"He could get up in front of an audience and present a story or a case," said his father, James Wilson, an engineer. "I was very impressed."

As a boy, the younger Wilson was active in church, serving as an acolyte and crucifer at Grace Episcopal Church in Elkridge.

He graduated from Howard High School in 1983, hiding his homosexuality until his freshman year at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.


The news stunned his family.

"I was hurt and devastated after I found out it was the lifestyle he was living," Mr. Wilson said.

Mrs. Wilson said she felt the same way at first.

"I always felt his being gay was an embarrassment," she said, at times believing that she had caused her son's homosexuality. But now she feels differently. "Jimmy was gay from the time he was born," she said.

In September 1987, four years after graduating from high school, Mr. Wilson was diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS. At first, family members refused to believe Mr. Wilson's claims that he was infected, knowing that he constantly sought attention.

"He always had to be bigger than life and he didn't look sick at the time," Mrs. Wilson recalled.


It wasn't until December 1992, when Mr. Wilson began suffering symptoms of the infection, that he asked his parents if he could come home.

The Wilsons agreed immediately, but feared the worst for their son.

"I knew in my heart he was coming home to die," Mrs. Wilson said.

Just before Christmas that year, Mr. Wilson returned home after a grueling four-day train trip from Seattle, where he had worked a string of part-time jobs since December 1991. His frail and ravaged body shocked his family.

"His cheeks were sunken, his temples sunken," Mrs. Wilson said.

During his illness, Mr. Wilson dropped from 140 pounds to 92 pounds and was going blind in his left eye. The family fought back with protein supplements, in-home nursing services and frequent doctor visits.


Mr. Wilson also struggled to maintain some control over his own life, insisting on doing his own laundry and cooking his own meals.

"He was a man; he didn't want to give up his independence," Mrs. Wilson said.

But relations within the family worsened shortly after Christmas of 1992 when Mr. Wilson invited a companion from Seattle, to come to visit.

"I was almost totally beside myself," the elder Mr. Wilson recalled. "I felt very uncomfortable."

When the elder Mr. Wilson asked his son's friend to leave, "it all went downhill from there," he said.

"The boy kind of lost touch with me."


The two men argued bitterly. By late January of 1993, the younger Mr. Wilson and his mother moved out of the house to a two-bedroom bungalow in Ellicott City. Mrs. Pycior traveled from New Jersey to help her sister take care of Mr. Wilson.

But not even a new house could prevent Mrs. Wilson's troubles from following her to work.

"I couldn't stop crying," she said. "I couldn't concentrate." At times, she thought her 29-year marriage would end.

The elder Mr. Wilson reached out to his wife and son, however. Eventually, he and his son had a private conversation in the little house.

"We talked for about 2 1/2 to three hours," Mr. Wilson said. "Neither one agreed that [homosexuality] was right, wrong or different, but that's how we left things."

Mr. Wilson was relieved that he got a chance to share his thoughts with his son.


"I'm glad it got out and I just didn't hold onto to them," he said. "We tried to be honest."

More than a year after the son's death, the Wilsons still are struggling with the aftershocks. They attend support group meetings at the Family Life Center in Columbia for families and friends of those with AIDS.

And after their experience, the Wilsons warn that society should not be complacent about the disease.

"There is not a family who will not have someone infected by HIV," Mrs. Wilson said. "Safe sex is all well and good, but that's only a temporary fix. We need to find out what destroys the disease in total."