It was the most desperate week of my life. It gave birth to the most hopeful idea I’ve ever had. In July 2008, I learned that I had a seven-inch cancerous tumor in my left femur. I instantly worried about my three-year-old twin daughters and what life might be like for them.
Would they wonder who I was? Would they wonder what I thought? Would they yearn for my approval, my love, my voice?
“I asked each of them to teach a different lesson to my girls—how to live, how to travel, how to think, how to dream.”
Three days later, I awoke with an idea of how I might give them my voice. I would reach out to six men from all parts of my life and ask them to form a “Council of Dads.”
My initial instinct was not to tell my wife, Linda. We should focus on the positive. We should live in the moment.
But I quickly lost my resolve. Linda cried at first, but as soon as we began discussing who should be in my Council, she started rejecting my nominees. “I love him,” she would say, “but he doesn’t represent you.” She added, of another, “I would never ask him for advice.” Starting a Council was a very efficient way of finding out what my wife really thought of my friends!
We needed a set of guidelines.
First, no family members. We figured my family would already have relationships with the girls. Plus, as Linda said, your friends know you differently from your family.
Second, men only. Many of my close friends are women, but with their mom still around, we sought to fill the Dad space in our girls’ lives.
Third, intimacy over longevity. We thought some more recent friendships might better capture the father I wanted to be.
Finally, a dad for every side. We looked for men who might capture different aspects of my personality.
We ultimately settled on six men: my oldest friend, my camp counselor, my college roommate, my business partner, my closest confidant and a tortured romantic poet friend. I asked each of them to teach a different lesson to my girls—how to live, how to travel, how to think, how to dream.
I then asked each one for a single piece of advice to convey to my daughters. Their answers ranged from the best way to take a trip—“Be a traveler, not a tourist”—to the best way to make your dreams come true— “Don’t see the wall.” One advised them not merely to seek the answers but to “Live the questions.” Another counseled that even when they experience pain they should still “Harvest the miracles” around them.
Their answers surprised, at times confused, but ultimately moved me. They also changed our lives. I remember after my first conversation with one of the dads, I said to Linda: “Their wisdom is not just going to change how our girls live. It’s going to change how you live.” (The advice had to do with the proper way to jump in puddles.) These answers were intended for my girls, but they’ve already made me a better dad and friend.
And therein has proven the magic of the Council of Dads. We did it for our girls. But it has transformed us. The experience helped build a bridge between our friends and our kids. It created an entirely new community in our lives. It reminded us of the power of friendship.
Recently, on my girls’ fifth birthday, the Council of Dads convened for the first time ever. They argued about politics, parenting and height. They complained about the weather, one another, me. In short, they were men! (My wife said she had wondered for two years what they would talk about. The answer: sports cars!)
But our girls didn’t care. They were delighted as they moved from dad to dad, reveling in the private bond they share with each one. Our girls don’t understand the shadow that hangs over the idea. All they know is that these men are not just Daddy’s friends.
They are their friends.
That night, after the girls were sleeping, we went around the room and each man spoke of how the experience had changed him. One felt the Council helped replace the voice of his own father. Another took the advice he gave our girls and changed how he parents his own children. The last person to speak was my confidant. I call him my ThinkDad. He calls himself The Contrarian.
“When I first heard the idea of the Council, I rejected it,” he said. “You would triumph over your illness. We wouldn’t need to exist. Today I realized I was wrong. Whether we’re healthy or sick, male or female, we all need to be reminded of what’s most valuable in our lives. We all need to be surrounded by the people we love. And seeing the looks on the girls’ faces today, I now know we all need our own Council.”
Bruce Feiler is the best-selling author of Walking the Bible and America’s Prophet. His new book is The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me. Feiler has been cancer-free since completing chemotherapy last year.