“The Council of Dads” by Bruce Feiler is a memoir of his “Lost Year” in which he underwent treatment for bone cancer and his quest to ensure that his twin 3-year-old daughters would have men in their lives who embody all the best traits of their dad in the event he died.
The book’s chapters alternate between periodic letters he sent to friends and family updating them as to how he and his family were dealing with the cancer and treatment; chapters about the six men from his life he chose to be on his council of dads; and chapters about the other men in his life: his father, his grandfathers, his oncologist.
Feiler is in his early 40s, Jewish, grew up in Savannah, lives in Brooklyn, and is an author and traveler. He wrote the book “Walking the Bible: A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses”, which was later made into a TV show. In 2008, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the bone of his left leg. Confronted with his mortality, he asks six men from all phases of his life, each of them embodying one aspect of his “voice”, that they could pass on to his daughters: Jump into life’s experiences; always be true to yourself; believe you can succeed; stay rooted in the places you’re from; passionately search for the answers to your questions and always find new questions; find the beauty and miracles that are always around you.
The details of how this council would work are left unwritten. Would there be a formal arrangement of visits and trips or would they just be available for the girls as they needed each man’s presence? How would a man who lives hundreds of miles away be a surrogate dad? The details are actually unimportant. Deciding them ahead of time does a disservice to the idea because no one can know how the girls’ needs would arise, especially if Feiler himself lives for years past his remission. Or if he doesn’t die during their childhood, but lives a long life. Even then their advice could be helpful.
Being in a similar state in life—early ’40s, young children—it was natural to reflect on how I would react to a similar situation. Who would be on my Council of Dads for my kids? My brothers, certainly. A few close friends. Some mentors I’ve had. But I don’t know that I could say that I could identify six men who would embody my “voice”, so it was a little hard to identify with that project. But in a way it’s similar to the classic idea of the godfather, a man who would be there for your kids if you couldn’t be for some reason. You would choose this godfather because he would raise your kids the way you would.
The wisdom in this book became for me an opportunity to reflect on my philosophy as a dad, making me a better dad for having considered what I would do in his place; what Melanie would do to ensure the father influence that would reflect who I am would remain in our kids lives. Certainly, Feiler and I don’t agree on everything, but the roots are there. So often I had to stop to read a passage to Melanie because it either was so profound or it is so closely reflected our own experiences with our kids that it could have been our own children. For example, they had a game they played before bed where they related something good or bad in their lives.
Eden’s good was, “Daddy is using one crutch now, so I can hold his hand.” Tybee followed with this bit of wisdom. “I have so much love in my body for you, Daddy, that I can’t stop giving you hugs and kisses. And when I have no more love left, I just drink milk, because that’s where love comes from.”
It’s so perfect because that’s something Isabella would say.
The book ends with the letter from Feiler to his daughters that he hopes they will never have to read, in which he tells them about the Council of Dads, but then gives them his fatherly advice and wisdom. It’s the sort of letter all of us should write to our loved ones, because none of us know the day or hour. Feiler had the gift of having his attention focused on this possibility. So I think I will write a letter to each of my kids and then make a habit of updating it every year. And maybe that will become my “Counsel of Dad” (sic).
- councilofdads.jpg: William Morrow and Company | Copyright by owner. Used under Fair Use doctrine