Sue Arnold All those mothers waiting for their children to call

'The horrific events of Tuesday have focused my mind on what it means to be a parent'
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The Independent Online

It wasn't the pictures of planes and falling skyscrapers that brought it home to me, it was those awful final phone calls.

It wasn't the pictures of planes and falling skyscrapers that brought it home to me, it was those awful final phone calls.

It is impossible to imagine what it must be like to hear a familiar voice at the other end of the phone saying: "Mum, I'm calling to say goodbye. My plane's been hijacked, we're going to die but I love you.''

My first reaction to the terrorist attack on New York last Tuesday was to telephone the daughter who has just started working in Azerbaijan to find out if she was all right. Baku must be at least 1,000 miles from Afghanistan, but panic displaces rational thinking. Remember all those Americans who, fearing reprisals after the bombing raids on Libya, cancelled their trips to Scotland.

My next thought was to beg the daughter who's about to go to India and the son due to start at his university in Spain next week to stay put and not go anywhere, please. Flying is dangerous, travel is dangerous, foreign parts are dangerous, foreign people are dangerous. "East, west, home's best" is the earth-mother's motto. Globalisation sucks. If only we still lived as people in novels such as Cider with Rosie and Lark Rise to Candleford used to live – all together in the same village, in the same street even, all minding our own business and getting on with our own lives quietly, peacefully. And then I remembered the fellow who came back from foreign parts to Laurie Lee's village and was murdered by envious drunken locals.

And the daughter in Baku, having reassured me she was fine, reminded me that there are other dangers besides terrorists. Her flight from Moscow has been delayed seven hours because just before take-off the pilot noticed a hole in the wing. It took him four hours to get someone to mend it and another three arguing as to who was going to pay the bill.

What the horrific events of last Tuesday have done is to concentrate my mind on what it means to be a parent. Not the parent listening to a final anguished message from a mobile phone on a hijacked plane – I've already said I couldn't imagine that – nor the parent under discussion last Wednesday at the much-publicised Work Life Balance conference, which seemed to be all about nannies and equal pay. I mean the parents who are trying to explain to a school-aged child why the whole terrible thing happened. As if I really know anyway.

When the 11-year-old son rang the front doorbell at 4 o'clock after school last Tuesday afternoon, I went downstairs to meet him. The rest of us had remained glued to the television set since half past two, and I wanted if possible to wean him gently on to the horrors he was about to witness on the screen. Who knows, he might have known about it already. He didn't; but all his friends have mobile phones, and maybe their parents had alerted them on the bus home, but they hadn't. He listened in silence to my garbled account and said: "The history teacher said we should try and see if there was an event in the papers today that would go down in history, do you think this would do?''

I don't envy history teachers. How much can you tell a class of 11-year-olds about the history of conflict in the Middle East or the nature of religious fanaticism or the merits of capitalism or the misery of the refugee camps before their eyes glaze over with confusion and boredom? Children understand characters, not concepts.

Maybe I will tell my son the story that John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, tells about meeting the notorious Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden ordered his men to kill Simpson. They demurred. Bin Laden offered a lorry driver $500 to do it. He refused, and bin Laden fell on the ground weeping with fury. I don't need to tell my son that Muslims aren't all fanatics; his friend Sanjit walked across the mountains from Afghanistan with his father to escape from the Taliban.

No one ever said parenting would be easy, and right now it's all those mothers in America still waiting and hoping for their missing children to ring that I'm thinking about.