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Reality isn't part of mom's anxiety

As soon as my dad heard I was expecting my first (and ultimately only) child, he chuckled. "Having a baby means you'll never sleep soundly again," he said.

I thought he was kidding, or perhaps he meant sleep would be sparse for the next few months. But he wasn't kidding, and he didn't mean brief infanthood.

Night feedings are transient, but worry is forever. Your child is born, and from then on, you sleep with half an eye and half an ear on ready reserve.

When they are babies, you drape your arm over the side of the bedside bassinet to make sure they are moving. By grammar school years, you are listening for a cough down the hall. When they are teenagers, you sleep sitting up in a chair waiting for them at night.

The worst comes when they are out on their own and you rouse out at 2 a.m. wondering if they are at their home in their beds . . . safe.

It's as though the worry will It's as though the worry will leap across space and wrap the ones you love in a protective cocoon. It's as irrational as it is irresistible.

Whenever I see someone off at an airport, I find myself in a frenzy of distress, perhaps subconsciously thinking my agonies will distract the crash gods until my people can make it home. As the plane taxis down the runway, I fleetingly wish something would happen to the aircraft ahead of them _ a flat tire or a forgotten "no salt" special meal for a passenger, no more than that, honest _ because the odds of two-in-a-row problems are so remote.

I wonder if some of the parents of the Pennsylvania language students on their first jaunt to Europe played some of the same mind tricks and now are wondering if they somehow failed to worry enough or do enough games to keep this awful, awful thing from happening to their children.

I sometimes hesitate to coax people I love to fly down to see me for fear something will happen to them on the way and I'll spend the rest of my life feeling at fault.

In reality, a plane crash is so sudden, so uncontrollable and so unexpected _ like a falling elevator or open grate in a city sidewalk _ that neither love nor guilt nor household rules can protect the child we put on the doomed craft from harm.

Yet I still try, I try.

Years ago, when I put my teenager on an airplane for his first solo trip to Europe, with only a passport, Eurail pass, $300 in traveler's checks and a American Express Gold Card to protect him, I knew that all the worry in the world would not keep him safe.

My anxiety level went up when he told me he had cashed in the expensive, first-rate airline ticket we had bought him and gotten one on a cut-rate carrier making its first trip to London because he felt guilty over the cost of his trip and was trying to save money. I guess guilt is inherited.

I played all my mental tricks, finally standing by the boarding gate howling in open anguish, hoping that something I could do would work just one more time to keep him from harm's way.

The pilot found his way to London, but later, I found myself wondering if my heartfelt concern could keep him from being caught in the Italian mudslide Isaw on the wire service or safe from terrorists in airports or keep the Chernobyl fallout from making him sick.

Of course not, and I knew it.

Children fly away, both figuratively and literally, and no game or trick or distraction that moms and dads create back at home can keep them safe from whatever happens wherever they are.

Staying awake really won't change a thing.