I got an unforgettable education on my daughter's third birthday. I had just returned from a series of long trips with Sen. Bob Kerrey's unsuccessful presidential primary campaign. Some of the trips lasted six or seven days, with only a quick stop home to do laundry. Mollie and I were driving through our Silver Spring neighborhood on the way back from the grocery store when, from her car seat in the back, she said, "Dad, can I ask you a question?" And then, after a pause, "What street is your house on?"

"What?" I asked, thinking I hadn't heard correctly.

"What street is your house on?"

It was a terrifying moment. She did not know her dad lived in the same house that she did. Though I was able to convince her that we resided at the same address, her uncertainty about my place in her life continued and manifested itself in many ways. A skinned knee sent her toppling toward Mom, not me. A question raised by something overheard at school could be saved for hours if necessary until Mom was around to ask. Her most frequent question became, "Where's Mom?"

"What do you need Mom for?"

"I just need her. Where is she?"

"Sweetie, you can tell me what you want."

"Okay, I want Mom."

"I mean if you'll tell me what you want Mom for maybe I can get it for you."

"I just want to know where she is."

"I don't know."

"Well, how are you going to be able to get me what I want if you don't even know where my Mom is?"

The most important thing I had to learn about being a dad to Mollie was how to be with her. Children have litmus tests and they don't always extend you the courtesy of letting you know what they are. Mollie's need was for me to be willing to be with her, to be fully present, even in the absence of a specific reason, like an organized activity or play. To be with her on her terms, even though she couldn't express them. This, more than anything else, may be what builds trust in a child--self-esteem also.

Most of my time with Mollie had been organized around doing things: going swimming, or to a movie, or taking the dogs for a walk. If Mollie and I didn't have some specifically scheduled activity, I would typically work on other chores, read in my study and make phone calls. From the point of view of maximizing time and being productive, it made perfect sense.

When it was time to read her a bedtime story, Mollie would call me after the rest of the bedtime routine had been completed, and I would walk into her room like a dentist who waited until the patient was cleaned and prepped so he wouldn't have to waste a minute's more time than necessary. It was the way I felt and I'm sure now it was the way it made her feel, too. And so I had to learn what her mother already knew: how to watch a TV show with Mollie even if it wasn't a show I wanted to watch, how to sit there and watch it without also reading a newspaper or magazine. To be fully present.

Mollie didn't want me for what I could give her or where I could take her or even for what we could do together. She wanted me for me.

A turning point came one summer evening as she grew increasingly frustrated trying to build a "secret hideout" in the back yard. The thin slate tiles she tried to prop against each other kept falling over until she burst into tears.

"You know what you need to make this work, Molls?"

"What?"

"You need about 60 bricks."

"Great, but we don't have 60 bricks."

"But we could get them. Get your shoes on and hop in the car. Real quick."

The Home Depot about three miles from our house offered a greater choice in bricks than could possibly be imagined. We finally settled on the 23-cents-a-brick variety, got our big, flat, wheeled cart, and then I started to load them, two to four at a time. They were rough and heavy and I wished I'd brought gloves. After being loaded onto the cart they would need to be loaded into the Jeep, and then unloaded yet again at the house.

"Oh please let me do that, Dad, please," Mollie begged. I couldn't imagine anything more unrealistic. The bricks were heavy and she would have to use two hands just to pick up one of them. If Mollie did it we would be there forever. I glanced at my watch and tried to keep my resistance in check.

"But sweetie, they're very heavy."

"Please, Dad, I really want to," she pleaded again, moving quickly to the pile of bricks and hoisting one with both hands. This was going to take all night.

Mollie walked back to the brick pile and carefully selected another one. Then I realized she wanted it to take all night. It was rare for the two of us to have time like this alone together. I leaned back against one of the wood pallets in the store and took a deep breath. Mollie, working steadily at the bricks, relaxed and became chatty, talking to me about what she'd build, and about school and her girlfriends and her upcoming horseback-riding lesson.

I was lucky. Twenty-three cents a brick is not a bad price to pay to let your daughter know you're there, fully there, for her.

Adapted from "The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back." Copyright {copy} 1999 by Bill Shore. Reprinted with permission of Random House Inc.

CAPTION: "Mollie didn't want me for what I could give her or where I could take her or even for what we could dotogether. She wanted me for me."

CAPTION: The most important thing I had to learn about being a dad to Mollie was how to be with her.