explore Out of Time

13 August 2020

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A Place for Everything, written by Anna Wilson (1988), is a searing account of a mother's late diagnosis of Aspergers, and its effects on a whole family.  Speaking about the book on BBC Radio 4 Women's Hour, Jane Garvey said, 'You don't have to have a connection to autism to find much that you can relate to in this book'.  Anna's family story raises questions about the need for greater support of women with autism, and what it means to care for our parents in their final years.  Below, Anna has kindly given us an insight into this story, which began at Emmanuel in the 1960s:A combination of three pictures: a blond middle-aged women looking at the camera in a denim jacket, a book entitled 'a place for everything', and a black-and-white photo of a couple in black tie and a ball gown

I went up to Emma in 1988, twenty–six years after my parents had met there. Neither of them was at the college—Dad went to Trinity, & Mum to Newnham. They were both Classicists, so it was appropriate that they should fall in love while performing The Frogs by Aristophanes in Emma’s Old Library.

Image (L): Anna in 2020, A Place for Everything, Anna's parents at the 1963 Cambridge Union Ball

Dad instilled in me a lifelong love of language and storytelling. At bedtime, he would weave tales from Greek myths, the Iliad and Odyssey. Years later, it would come to feel as though Dad’s beloved myths had become a reality, as we set off on our own 'odyssey' into the nightmarish lands of sickness, ageing and death. My memoir about Mum’s diagnosis of autism at the age of 72, A Place for Everything, is the tale of what happened en route.

Looking back, the signs of Mum being on the spectrum were hiding in plain sight. Her obsession over time–keeping should alone have been a red flag. Like Alice’s White Rabbit, Mum would pace, checking her watch, the carriage clock and the grandfather clock, muttering, ‘We’re going to be late!’. Time was Mum’s enemy: it’s uncontrollable and slippery, whether or not we are neurotypical, and our desire to control it is bound up in our fear of it running out. It’s perhaps no wonder that time caused Mum so much anxiety.

The day Dad died, time was of the essence. Mum was under section on a mental health ward, locked in, unable to get anywhere, on time or not. I was in Thailand in a different time zone. My sister called from the UK to say that Dad had only thirty–six hours left to live. I would need every last second of that time to make it back to see Dad before he kept his appointment with death. Thirty–six hours is not long. A day and a night and a day. Time that is easily wasted.

In the end, it did take exactly thirty–six hours for me to get to his bedside. Thirty–six hours of excruciating minutes that crawled across the face of every clock I checked. Minutes in which I couldn’t move fast enough, as though under a curse. I should have been used to this feeling. Caring for Mum had sent me spinning down the rabbit hole into a mad, mad world long before Dad’s cancer had crashed in, ripping me apart.

I wasn’t too late in the end. I walked into the darkened room where Dad lay, and exactly one hour later, he drew his last breath. It’s been five whole years without him. Two and a half without Mum. Yet it’s not five years. It’s a nanosecond. And if I can hold them still in my mind’s eye—that beautiful couple who met at Emma in 1962—they will always be here, Mum and Dad. Together. Time without end.

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