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How a Cancer-Stricken Dad Chose a Council of Successors

5 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Cancer hands you red-hot shoes and makes you dance with death every day for the rest of your life. So the question is, Who gets to lead? And what can the rest of us learn from watching?

Bruce Feiler is a writer with diverse interests and an adventurous spirit. His best seller Walking the Bible, about his 10,000-mile trek through the Holy Lands, became a hit PBS series; he wrote a book about his year as a circus clown and one on Abraham–nine books total, but none like his latest, The Council of Dads. It was basically born the day doctors told him there was a malignant, aggressive 7-in. tumor in his femur, a cancer so rare fewer than 100 adults get it a year. He was 43 years old, lying on his bed, wrapped in sudden uncertainty, when his 3-year-old twin daughters raced in, twirling and laughing. “I crumbled,” he recalls. “I kept imagining all the walks I might not take with them, the ballet recitals I might not see … the boyfriends I might not scowl at, the aisles I might not walk down.”

(See the Landscape of Cancer Treatment.)

From that dark place came the need; a few days later came the notion, when he began making a list of men who represented, in concentrated form, all the qualities and memories he most wanted his girls to encounter, which they might not get the chance to absorb from him. One of those men he had known since the sandbox, one had been a camp counselor, another a college roommate, another a business partner, six of them in all. My girls have a great mom and a loving family, he told them. “But they may not have me. Will you help be their dad?”

And thus was born the Council of Dads, the friends he hoped would teach the lessons, send the signals, say the things he would have when his daughters fail a test, win a prize, fall in love. Proposing membership, Feiler recalls, felt like proposing marriage. The conversations defy the image of awkward men allergic to sentiment. Cancer was “a passport to intimacy”; it drove him to tell his friends why they mattered, ask them to be more involved in his life and particularly in his daughters’.

You could say that he reversed the normal arc: having close friends and having children is like trying to play hopscotch and knit at the same time–theoretically possible but requiring more dexterity than most of us can manage. During our prime parenting years, juggling work and home is hard enough; few of us are so emotionally double-jointed that we can manage much more than a book group, a chat with the other parents in the bleachers, intimacy on the run.

Reading The Council of Dads made me wonder at the great opportunity we miss. Sometime after you have kids, you are told to make a will, name some guardians, and on that occasion you wave, politely and formally, to your mortality as you carefully cross to the other side of the street. It’s natural to avoid thinking about what your children would do without you. But being a parent involves planned obsolescence. We actually want children, as they grow, to expand emotionally, explore independently. Teenagers especially need advice from women who are not their mother, guidance from men who are not their dad.

This was once the province of godparents: in Renaissance-era Florence, a child could have a dozen of them–an extended family of providers and protectors. But since then, the role has evolved from spiritual mentor to social fixer. In some ZIP codes, preschool admissions officers find they get a lot of requests to serve, and Hallmark now makes a couple dozen Christmas-card designs for godparents to send, which is a sure sign the relationship has lost much of its meaning. “Always a godfather, never a god,” lamented the much recruited author Gore Vidal.

Hillary Clinton said it takes a village, and she was mocked, but she was right. Is there any greater gift we can give our children than to be loved and lifted by as many adults as possible, beyond immediate family? Single and divorced parents do this informally all the time. Feiler, whose latest tests show him to be, for now, cancer-free, is working with the National Fatherhood Initiative, which has kiosks in 1,500 military bases around the world. The plan is to distribute literature about The Council of Dads and invite soldiers to convene their own; these are men and women who live with mortality and separation.

But maybe it’s an exercise for everyone, not just in parenting, but in friendship and self-discovery. I’d like my daughters to have a Council of Dads, a Council of Moms–not, God willing, to replace my husband or me, but to remind us which values we value most, and help us make sure we transmit them.

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