I’m back at work, after four days with my children, making meals and making beds and making up stories, and imagining I could make up for our time apart — the missed good mornings and good nights, the scares and discoveries and secrets, the moments remembered for years that last only a moment and can’t be shared by letter or phone. Being a father is hard; cramming too much fathering into too few days is exhausting. I play too hard or not hard enough, I ignore them and feel guilty, I pursue them and they pursue me. Then I remember my greatest gift to them is who I am. Do I believe in love, in mine for them and theirs for me, or do I make what separates us more important? After three years of shared custody, I’m still figuring out how to share myself.

I can’t make up for anything. Why try? My very trying creates conflict; if I demand that reality match my fantasy about how things should be, I’m denying life itself. My children are smarter than that. They’re not second-guessing existence, lost in what might have been or what might be. Here, and now, they’ve not yet learned there’s anything else.

“Shoulds” make prison bars as real as steel. I’ve lived behind them, tried to trap others behind them — everyone to whom I’ve slipped a file and said, “Set me free.” But the bars I finger are made of me; I don’t need your file, just love’s key. What’s freedom anyway? A choice of candidates? Of lovers? I’m free to see the world as it is, or not to. If I don’t, I’m free to sift among the ashes — to count and worry about them, elect a President of ash, insure the burnt future with a check drawn against time, paying for tomorrow with today. But the check always bounces.

How many have I signed, with an ever shakier hand? One too many. I am bankrupt and blessed. Owning nothing, I’m owned by nothing. I still count my ashes — force of habit. But it’s expensive; I’m giving it up. Better a beggar than a banker of ash; better thankful than proud. Time’s shiny dollar rattles in my cup: the coin of the moment. In God I trust.

— Sy