As you know, I have learned that I have a seven-inch cancerous tumor in my left femur. The afternoon I first heard the diagnosis, I stumbled home, lay down on my bed and stared at the sky, imagining all the ways my life would change. Then Eden and Tybee came in, running and giggling. A few days later I woke up suddenly before dawn and thought of a way I might help re-create my voice for them. I started making a list of six men-from all parts of my life. These are the men who know me best. The men who share my values. Men who know my voice.
Will you help be their dad?
Bestselling author Bruce Feiler did not pop the question lightly. Just 43 at the time and reeling from the diagnosis of a deadly bone cancer so rare that it strikes only 100 adults each year, he quickly realized that he found the prospect of his own premature end far less unsettling than the thought of his 3-year-old twins navigating life without the love of a father. “I wasn’t going to see the art projects, mess up the boyfriends I’d scowl at, walk down the aisle,” says Feiler, now 45. “It was a moment of profound absence.”
From that absence arose a six-member “Council of Dads” that today is an involved, joyous presence not only in the twins’ lives, but in Feiler’s and his wife Linda Rottenberg’s as well. “Linda and I did it for the girls, but we’re the ones who benefited most,” says Feiler, who chronicles the group’s creation and his battle with cancer in his new memoir The Council of Dads. “It’s created this new character in our lives that’s not family, not friends.” With David Black, his friend and literary agent, the girls cook; with Ben Edwards, a radiologist, they fish, and so on. For Feiler, whose peripatetic writings-including the bestselling Walking the Bible-have introduced readers to far-flung parts of the globe, the kinship has yielded its own special magic. “It has focused me less on going out into the world and more on going deep into people’s souls,” he says. “Cancer is a passport to intimacy.”
It has also been a hellish journey. “The chemo I had was brutal-it wipes you out in every possible way,” says Feiler, whose sarcoma has a survival rate of 60 percent. “I was a living ghost.” His girls, initially told only that their dad had “a boo-boo leg,” grew frightened “when he started going to the hospital for fevers and reactions to the chemo,” says Linda. Giving them a bit more information and answering their questions-“What does Daddy eat in the hospital?”-helped, as did visits from the council dads, who proved their mettle from the start. “When we went to Vermont and I was on crutches, Jeff took the girls to see some chicks and newborn lambs,” Feiler recalls. “On Halloween, when I couldn’t walk around the neighborhood, Josh took them trick-or-treating. It was really touching-until I realized he was sneaking them chocolate at bedtime. He’s gonna be like rebellion dad.”
A year distanced from surgery and chemo, Feiler is in remission. Though he walks with a limp, he no longer needs crutches or a cane. “The doctors aren’t in the business of predicting the future,” he says, “but they’re hopeful.” Says Linda: “I hope and continue to believe that the council will survive with him present in it.”
For now, it’s flourishing. In April all six dads helped the twins celebrate their 5th birthday at the Feilers’ home in Brooklyn. “The girls don’t understand that this council was created in the event that Bruce should not make it,” says Linda. “Now they want a council of moms too.” Feiler thinks it’s a great idea. “I looked at those guys sitting there on the deck with the girls, and I realized this has nothing to do with sickness or health,” he says. “It’s about how you can’t have too many adults who love your kids.” Knowing he has six more than before, he says, “gives me the power to really rest comfortably at night.”