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I am standing next to my daughter, one hand on her waist, the other on the handlebars.

She looks up at me, suddenly uncertain.

Now, slowly, we are pedaling and I have both hands on her waist, steadying her, then I loosen my hands, until they are like a halo surrounding her, not holding her, but ready to catch her just the same. She pedals again, then again, realizing my grip has loosened.

She looks up.

'I'm doing it.' Her voice is a mix of relief and surprise.

More pedals, a few wobbles.

Again: 'I'm doing it.' 

This time it is excitement. 

She looks up. Her smile is amazing, wide with delight. 

Then, with a strong, deliberate pedal, she pushes forward, past my outstretched hands, and pedals away, a squeal of joy echoing down the alley behind her.

••• 

As I stand there, my daughter having passed another milestone, passed it with barely a blink, I try to remember the first time I rode a bike without training wheels, but can't.

It was red, I think. A Schwinn, probably. Definitely used, handed down from my brother.

My father was there, he had to have been.

I can remember the big-wheeled tricycle that came first, how I would decorate its tires with streamers and lead a birthday/Flag Day parade down our block. I can remember the bike that came after, shiny gold with a speckled green banana seat, butterfly handlebars and a stick shift for its three gears. I can remember the brown 10-speed that came next and how hard it was to push it up the steep basement stairs and out the back door. 

All great memories, but the one I want to remember most I cannot reach.

•••

Annaliese is 7, but just about 8, and decided without prompting this was the day the training wheels should come off. Truth be told, once they did, she barely needed my help. After a second steadying attempt, she tells me she can do it, and she is off on her own, each circuit a little more certain than the last. I had thought she would have needed me more for this, but I just watch and wait, I wait to see if she needs me still.

With every wobble, I startle a bit.

She will fall. I know that.

She will bruise her knee or rip her pants or skin an elbow. She will be scared and hurt, the tears will come. She will fall and miss on an audition or be cut from a team or flub a test or choose the wrong guy or lose a friend or make a decision that leaves her lost and lonely and I won't be there, can't be there, to catch her. I know this, too.

So, when she stops to bask in my praise and my pride, I make up three rules for bike riding.

Bike riding is really, really cool and totally awesome. 

Sometimes you will fall. 

Rule No. 2 does not change Rule No. 1. 

She nods and returns to riding. 

'Will you remember those?' I call out. 

'Yes.' 

I know she will fall because I fall. 

I fall every time I raise my voice, when I am not quite patient enough, when I say wait a minute because I'm doing something that seems important but, in the end, really isn't that important at all. Every time my tone is too sharp or my touch is not gentle enough. I fall often. Sometimes, it seems, I fall every day. 

She circles back, stops and asks: 'What are the rules again?' 

I repeat them. She thinks for a moment. 

'So, it means always keep riding, right?'

•••

Annaliese never met my father. 

Cancer took him before she was born, years before I met my wife, Katy. Yet Annaliese asks about him often, about what happened, about why he died and if I miss him. I try to keep it simple, because I don't want her to think about what it would be like to miss someone so deeply. I don't want her to think about missing me. 

One day, as we were driving, a question came from the back seat. 

'What happens when you die?' 

I waited, unsure what answer to give, when after a moment she provided one herself: 'I think when you die, Jesus comes down to get you, takes your hand and brings you to heaven.' 

'You know,' I said. 'I think you're right about that one.' 

'That's what happened with your Dad.' 

Sometimes, when Annaliese talks about 'Papa,' it takes me a moment to realize she's not talking about the Papa alive and well in Port Washington, the one who hung a tire swing in the backyard, the one who entertains the young cousins at dinner by putting a napkin on his face, Lone Ranger style. She means my Dad.

So, I tell her he was a social worker, that he always took care of people and fought for what was right. I tell her he would have been so, so proud of her, that he would have loved her big heart and kind nature, her adventurous spirit and hunger to learn. 

'He would have loved you so much,' I say. 

And she corrects me. 

'You mean he does love me. He still loves me from heaven.' 

••• 

On a recent Saturday, we are sitting together — Mommy, Daddy and Annaliese — for some quiet talk during her First Communion retreat. We each have to answer the question: Describe a time when you felt close to God.

Tears start spilling from my eyes.

'Daddy, why are you crying?' she asks.

 I explain that two of the times I felt closest to God were when my father died and when she was born. How, before he died, we each took his hand and told him how much we loved him, that it was OK to let go, to stop fighting, to leave us here and watch us from above. How, when she was born, she heard our voices and looked over to us from the warming table, and how I went over and took her hand and she squeezed my finger. 

I have told her the stories before.

I love telling one. It pains me to tell the other. 

•••

'Did you notice anything?' she asks. 

It is a few weeks later. We are at the dinner table, trying to catch up on everything that happened in our days in a few minutes. 

'No, what?' 

'I'm not calling you Daddy anymore. I'm calling you Dad.' 

It seems at school only the little kids use Daddy, and when you are 7, but just about 8, and when you are doing division and researching fireflies, earthquakes and Leonardo da Vinci, when you have declared you want 'to learn everything in the world' and are reading chapter books and riding a bike without training wheels, well, you're no longer a little kid. 

'But, I like Daddy,' I say. 

'OK,' she allows. 'I might still call you Daddy sometimes.' 

'I hope so.' 

Sometimes, when I am lucky, she'll let me sit beside her as she falls asleep. 

And sometimes, when she asks me to put my head on the pillow next to her, she will reach out, take my hand and grip my finger. 

When she does, it feels like she is doing it more for me than for her. 

Greg Borowski is deputy managing editor/projects, investigations and digital innovation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is editor of PolitiFact Wisconsin.

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