Life-Changing Health Scare Leads To 'Council Of Dads'

A cancer diagnosis prompted writer and father Bruce Feiler to assemble what he called a “council of dads,” a group of men who could offer guidance to his daughters if the cancer proved fatal. Host Michel Martin speaks with him about his new book exploring that experience; it’s titled The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to another parenting conversation. Today we want to talk about one of the most difficult questions a parent has to face: what if there's a good chance you might not be there to see your kids grow up? How would you make sure that you could still touch their lives? That they could hear your voice as they make their journey through life without you?

That was author Bruce Feiler's most pressing concern when a routine physical examine revealed a cancerous tumor in his leg. Best known for his books like "Walking the Bible" and "America's Prophet," Feiler decided to gather a council of dads, a group of men who could stand in as father figures for his very young twin daughters. Out of those conversations came this new book "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me." And Bruce Feiler is with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. BRUCE FEILER (Author): Always a pleasure, Michel. Nice to see you.

MARTIN: I'm sure everybody just wants to know, how are you?

Mr. FEILER: I'm doing okay. I've been cancer-free for a year now. As you saw, I just walked into your studio to have this conversation. It was about several weeks ago the first time I walked out of my house and realized, oh, my gosh, I just walked out my front door without crutches or a cane for the first time in almost two years. So, I'm doing good.

MARTIN: That's great. I'm sure everybody's glad to hear that. And if you don't mind, I'd like to ask about the girls in a minute, but I do want to ask about your wife, who plays a very large role in your story and how's she doing?

Mr. FEILER: She's doing okay. I think it's interesting, I've written a bunch of different books. I've actually - this is my ninth book and Linda has been there for, oh, I probably could tally, about two or three of those books. But I have never been involved in something that seemed and actually was more collaborative from the very beginning. Even the idea, actually. Once I had the idea to create this council of dads, three days after I learned that I had an osteosarcoma in my left femur, my original instinct was not to tell her.

But the next day - I just couldn't contain the idea and the next day I told her and she started crying. But then she quickly started vetoing my nominees. She would say, well, I love him, she said not entirely convincingly, but I wouldn't ask him for advice. And that's when I realized that the idea wasn't really mine, it was ours somehow.

MARTIN: Well, tell me though about that, how the idea came about. Because as you mentioned in the book, the idea came to you very quickly after your diagnosis.

Mr. FEILER: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm sure a lot of people are thinking, well, I don't know, if I got this terrible news, my first thought would be how do I support my family or how will I get through this? And your mind started going in that direction very soon. I wonder what you make of that. Was it an inspired moment? Do you think it's because you're a writer? What?

Mr. FEILER: I think that if you go back in the story - and you talked about some of the journeys I had been in my life with "Walking the Bible" and "Abraham," and I had lived my life going out and traveling and dreaming and walking. It was this routine blood test produced this elevated alkaline phosphatase number. A series of tests leads to this phone call in July of 2008, the tumor in your leg is not consistent with a benign tumor. And from that very instant, Michel, I have to say, I created a kind of tension, almost like a kind of wrestling cage match between my daughters and the cancer. And I sort of melted away.

I thought, you know what, no one's ever going to say I didn't live a full life. But I kept coming back to the girls and would they wonder who I was? Would they wonder what daddy thought? And you think of, in that moment, all the things you're going to miss, right? So the art projects I wouldn't mess up or the boyfriends I wouldn't scowl at or the aisles I wouldn't walk down.

So, several days elapses and we actually then went to visit my in-laws and you don't really sleep. Actually, you don't sleep at all when you have cancer, to be honest. It's like always a fitful thing. So I'm lying there in bed. I'm weeping. I'm shaking so hard, I don't want wake Linda because she, thankfully, that moment is sleeping.

So I get out of bed. I go sit in the living room, wrap myself in a blanket. I'm looking out over this marsh. We're in Cape Cod at the moment. And I said to myself, I would call this group of men the council of dads. At that moment all I wanted to do was live long enough to assemble this group and then eventually, I decided that I would write about it. And as somebody said, actually one of the men on my council said recently, most of your books are journeys to places that we want to go but can't. The council of dads is a journey to a place we don't want to go but we feel enriched when we do.

MARTIN: You created a kind of a couple of rules, if I can call it that...

Mr. FEILER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...for who would be on the council of dads. You decided not family.

Mr. FEILER: Yes.

MARTIN: Because you figured they hopefully would be part of your children's lives anyway, who were how old at the time of this diagnosis?

Mr. FEILER: Eden and Tybee are identical twin girls and they had just turned three.

MARTIN: Just turned three. So, not family. And you decided on intimacy over longevity, although there are some very long relationships in the book.

Mr. FEILER: Yes.

MARTIN: But how did you come up with that and were there any hurt feelings as a result of that? Were there anybody who said, I should've been part of the council of dads and how come you didn't pick me?

Mr. FEILER: Well, that is a pain point, certainly for me. I think to go back, I told Linda - I first said I wouldn't tell Linda, then the next day I told her and then we quickly start kind of locking horns about who should be in it. And I realize, okay, we need a set of guidelines and so you articulated some. One, no family, only friends. Partly, as you said, the family would already be there. But partly, as Linda said, your friends know you differently from your family. And then we did say intimacy over longevity. And what I meant by that is some of my more recent relationships might kind of better capture the dad I wanted to become.

And then we essentially said, okay, look, what we want to do is capture different sides of my personality. So, I like to travel so we wanted a travel dad, right? I like to be outdoors so we wanted a nature dad. Values, I wanted a values dad. And we kind of looked at things that were missing. And now cut, you know, almost two years later, as people are kind of taking this idea and I'm seeing divorced women doing council of dads because they want father figures for their children. I'm seeing military fathers because they spend a lot of time away, think about mortality. I'm thinking - I'm seeing foster parents, adoptive parents. Everybody who hears it wants to do something with it but everybody does something slightly different with the idea.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Bruce Feiler about his latest book "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me."

You obviously were a very passionate father to begin with. Your children were very much desired, are very much loved and will be, but did this experience and this thinking through of what you mean to them give you some additional insights in what it means to be a father?

Mr. FEILER: The answer is yes. I have thought a lot about what is that role of the dad? You know, what does it mean to fill that dad space in a child's life? And I think it's a little bit different for boys and girls. I'm the father of twin daughters, as you know. And in the case of a daughter, I think that a lot of the role of a father is to teach that girl how to be a woman. The father is the first one who really tries to win the heart of his daughter and let her have a sense of self-worth.

And I think that a lot of what I have learned and the thing that's most precious to me about the council of dads is the wisdom that I garnered from all of the men when I sat down and say, what is the one piece of advice you would give to my daughters? And the answers were mind-blowing to me, still mind-blowing to me.

I remember when I sat down with Jeff, the first conversation and he talked about how to be a traveler and not a tourist. He said, I want your girls to approach the world as a child would approach a mud puddle. You can look over and look at your reflection in the mirror and stick your finger in and maybe get a little wet or you can jump in and thrash around and get wet and see what it feels like and what it smells like. And I would tell your daughters that I want to see them back here after their first big trip covered in mud.

And I got up from that conversation and I said to Linda, I said, this exercise is designed to change our daughters' lives but it really changed us. And the main way it did that was to create a new community, to kind of build a bridge between our friends and our family.

MARTIN: One of my colleagues read this book along with me and she grew up without a dad.

Mr. FEILER: Hmm.

MARTIN: And it actually brought up some painful feelings for her, realizing that she never had, A, a dad like you and I don't know, her mom, it didn't occur to kind of assemble a council of dads. Of course, there were men in her life who loved her and cared for her and she has a wonderful husband, if you don't mind - if - I hope she doesn't mind my saying. But I wondered, as a pain point, did anyone tell you no?

Mr. FEILER: I wrote a letter to these men and I chose not to send it. I wanted to do it in person. Linda joked that it was basically like six marriage proposals, where I sat down with them and created this little moment and asked them. I remember the first one, we drove all the way up to Vermont. We're sitting in an apple orchard. I sit down with my friend Jeff and I read this letter, right? My girls will have plenty of opportunities in their lives. They'll have loving families. They'll have welcoming homes but they may not have me. They may not have their dad. Will you help be their dad?

I get to the end of the letter. He's crying. I'm crying. And he says, yes. I was like yes? I kind of had forgotten there was a question at the heart of the letter and it never occurred to me that somebody might turn me down. So nobody did turn me down.

And I will say this: one of the great sources of power and one of the reasons I wanted to write this book about the council of dads is this idea of sitting down with your closest friends and telling them what they mean to you. We never do that. We never have that moment. We never name that emotion. So, I was worried about the burden idea. And in retrospect, I think that's actually one of the things that's proven to be very helpful, maybe even practical about the idea of having a council. You're not investing that responsibility in only one person.

There are six of them in my case. So if one slacks off for a few months or is going through a difficult time, one of the men has since gotten divorced, right? One of them is about to have a new baby. There's always people around. And then what I've come to think about it, Michel, is it's almost like a team of godparents. This wasn't really in my mind at the time but part of the problem with the godparent idea in the culture today is there's a lot of zombie godparents walking around out there.

The parents who do the asking don't know what they're asking for. The friends doing the receiving don't know what they're accepting. The children don't know what the role is and there's this idea somehow that only one person can play all this role. So it was easier for me to say, I want you to be in my council of dads and I want you to teach them how to travel. I want you to teach them how to dream. You teach them how to live. It gave them a specific role and it somehow made it easier and less of a burden.

MARTIN: Bruce Feiler is the author of "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me." And he joined us from our studios in Washington. I'm so glad to see you and I'm so glad to see you looking so well, and every good wish to you.

Mr. FEILER: Thank you, Michel, always great to be with you.

MARTIN: We'll have more information on our website about Bruce Feiler and hear him read an excerpt from his book. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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