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Just yesterday it was a crib. Or a bike with training wheels. Then, a bike without.

I can measure my stages as a father by what I put together.

Tire swings. Basketball goals. Christmas Eve guinea pig cages.

"Assembly required," the packages say.

Isn't that what we try to do as fathers? To assemble and create good things for our kids?

These days, that seems harder and harder. Once center stage, I'm now supporting cast.

"I can do it myself, Dad," they say.

"Don't need your help, Dad."

"Old enough to do this, Dad."

I know, I know. We want our kids to be autonomous and street smart. But where does that leave us? The first half of parenting forces us into constant hands-on presence: tying shoes, fixing dinner, driving to school, practice, school, practice.

What happens when that ends?

"My daughter just got her license," another dad said. "And I lost all this precious car time I had with her."

So, when my middle school daughter came home recently with her eye on this new loft bed, I saw my chance. It was sleek — bed mattress up top, a little ladder and room for a desk underneath — and affordable — she'd use money from her summer job.

And assembly was required.

"Will you help me put it together?" she asked.

Is the pope Catholic?

Assembly Dad was back.

One afternoon, UPS dropped off a huge rectangular cardboard package in our garage. We don't own a forklift, so we had to open it there, then carry armload by armload upstairs to her bedroom.

There were 93,742 pieces. More or less.

"Mom says this will take five hours," she said.

Please.

The instructions were clear: bed pieces were marked by letters and screws marked by numbers. The "A" ladder, for example, is held in place by "3" screws.

"They sent a 'W' piece," I said, holding up a bed slat. "There's no 'W' in these instructions."

"Dad," she said. "It's an M."

An hour later, the bed was rising like the Eiffel Tower. We were working together, the Allen wrench smoothly passing between us like a father-daughter baton. There was good "This Old House" energy in the room. 

"I'd do this all over again just to be with her," I thought to myself.

Funny. I'd soon get the chance.

Before we ordered the loft bed, I did my Dad Talk.

"Always remember to measure," I told her. She got her tape, measured her room, once, twice. The bed would fit.

Yet now, as we screwed in the final piece of the loft, we realized our mistake.

"Dad," she said. "The ceiling fan is in the way."

When we measured, we looked low — will it fit between the door and window? On this wall or that one?

But we didn't look high; we forgot about the ceiling fan.

The top of the loft bed was inches from the fan. She had to army crawl to get into the bed; once in, she could never sit up.

It just wouldn't work.

"I hate it," she said, tears in her eyes.

Know the feeling? The sting of a wish turned sour?

It hurts.

"Handle with care," the packages say.

I was trying, but there was no way around it; the loft bed was coming back down.

The disassembly began, piece by piece, like a film in reverse. This time, the Allen wrench moved differently between us; it felt heavier, clunkier.

Finally, we crammed the last piece back inside the cardboard box. Official time?

Five hours.

"Mom was right," she said.

I'm 45, in the third quarter of life. I'm learning many things. Among them? Mom is often right.

And that the life I'm being asked to assemble is different than it was 10 years ago. I do not tie shoes anymore. No one needs my help riding a bike. When I was a young father, those structures I built — tire swings and treehouses — were containers that allowed me to express my devotion and love.

But containers do not last.

Things are built.

Things are torn down.

What remains?

This Thanksgiving, I thought about ones who assembled me — parents, grandparents, in-laws. My God, how much they did for me. My God, how blind I was to it at the time.

Now, many of them are gone.

"We moved too quickly," my daughter said of our ceiling fan mistake. "We rushed in."

Perhaps.

But it was never really about the loft bed.

We were together.

Sometimes, that's all life requires.

some text David Cook

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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