NEW YORK, NY / TIME Magazine / Edition of May 17, 2010
By Nancy Gibbs
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. Illustration: Gerard Dubois for TIME
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.)
Jeff Jacobson / Redux
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'.
Cancer Survivors' Inspirational Stories
Robert Cogan, 55
Type of Cancer: Oral. Diagnosed: March 2008
"This came as a total shock never having smoked in my life. After some testing I went in for surgery and they cut out 30% of my tongue. I am now undergoing speech therapy and hope to have the feeding tube and trac. (?) removed very shortly. This is such a life-changing event but something my family and I deal with one day at a time. I am planning to return to my job as a school teacher after the holidays."
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. [rc]
© 2010 Time Inc.