The ill father who asked his mates to look after his daughters
Published 19/05/2010 | 05:00
At 4.30am on July 5, 2008, as most Americans dreamt of barbecues and fireworks, Bruce Feiler got out of bed to stop his sobs waking his wife, Linda Rottenberg. Wrapping himself in a blanket, Feiler watched Linda sleep and thought about the possibility of leaving her and their three-year-old twin daughters, Eden and Tybee.
The writer (43) had learnt three days earlier that he had bone cancer in his leg. Doctors had immediately given him crutches, fearful that a fall would snap the bone and spread the cancer.
Feiler had accepted the possibility of losing his leg, although that limb and its twin had literally powered his career. A non-fiction author, he had made his name in 2002 with Walking the Bible, the story of his 10,000-mile trek through the lands of Moses, which spawned a television series. He was even at ease with the possibility of death.
What caused the "tsunami of emotion, horror, fear and sleeplessness" that forced him out of bed that morning was the prospect of leaving the dark-haired toddlers. "I kept coming back to the girls -- would they wonder who I was, would they yearn for my voice, my approval, my love?" he says.
Many parents, after the diagnosis of a potentially terminal illness, write letters or make videos so that sons and daughters left behind have something to hold on to. But Feiler wanted something more dynamic.
The answer came to him during his pre-dawn vigil. "I thought I'd reach out to men from all parts of my life and ask them to be present through the girls' lives, to father these potentially fatherless daughters," he says. He decided that he would choose men to represent different parts of himself and ask them to teach the girls attributes such as independence, self-belief and a sense of adventure. He wanted men who were willing to cheer the girls on at football games and vet new boyfriends; to tell them what their dad would have been thinking if he were alive.
"I'm a traveller and someday I hope they travel too, but who's going to give them that speech on how to make a good trip? Someday they're going to want to try something like run a marathon or open a restaurant or write a book -- how could I ever possibly anticipate what that was going to be? I needed voices that were as dynamic as the girls will be."
In the days after his early morning terror, Feiler and his wife settled on how he would select what he was already calling the Council of Dads.
"Linda kept saying that you've got to have diversity, you can't have your three closest friends from college," he says.
'So we set these rules: only men, because the girls' mother would still be there; no family members, because they would naturally have relationships with our girls; intimacy over longevity of friendship, and only one from each stage in my life.
"That made it a bit easier but I was still tortured. There's a kind of shadow council of people who didn't quite make it."
Over a period of 10 months, between bouts of chemotherapy, Feiler visited his six chosen men and read them a letter. "I believe my daughters will have plenty of opportunities in their lives. They'll have loving families. They'll have welcoming homes. They'll have each other. But they may not have me. They may not have their dad. Will you help to be their dad?" he wrote.
The moment he finished reading, both men were often in tears. Not one turned him down: Ben Edwards, Feiler's school friend; Jeff Shumlin, his first travel buddy; Max Stier, his college room-mate; Feiler's agent, David Black; Ben Sherwood, a close friend from New York bachelorhood; and a more recent friend, Joshua Ramo.
The family now get together regularly with the councillors and their families. "It's bridged this gap between our friends and our children and brought us together in a very powerful way," Feiler says.
He decided early in his illness that he would write about his council so that if he died, Eden and Tybee would understand his intentions. "There's no way they were going to be able to comprehend what was going on and at the time we didn't know if I was going to be alive in six months' time, so getting this down on the page was something I wanted to do," he says.
The conversations Feiler had with the men who joined his council has tapped into a growing interest in the dynamics of male relationships; Hollywood has been calling with offers to turn his story into a screenplay, and a Council of Dads social networking site is in the works.
With the US National Fatherhood Initiative, Feiler has also developed a five-step plan to help military fathers to create their own councils. "They're far away from their children and face mortality more than most," he says. "Also, the hallmark of the military, at least the American military, is 'do it for your buddies', go in there as a team, leave no one behind. They consciously use male intimacy as a plank of modern warfare."
The council has made Feiler think more about the relationships that men have. "I do think there's male intimacy, I think it expresses itself differently from female intimacy," he says. "I may have a group of men who like to talk about feelings and emotions and the body more than some men.
"But even men I've been around who like to go fishing or play sport or go drinking, I think that their bravado, one-upmanship and competition is a way of expressing support for one another."
Feiler spend the latter half of 2008 and much of early 2009 so ill that he was unable to get out of bed. Every moment was focused on "staying alive and enduring the ordeal". However, thanks in large part to the excellent care he received, Feiler, now 45, has been cancer-free for a year and is back on his feet, albeit with a slight limp and a left leg that is three-eighths of an inch shorter than the right.
He is using a cane at the moment due to a bad back but is keen to demonstrate his walk, picking a path over the rich rugs he brought back from Iran.
The 40lb he lost during chemo have returned, as have his eyebrows and head of brown hair. Rottenberg, who took time out of the office during her husband's treatment, is back at work.
Eden and Tybee, now 5, have shown no sign of trauma from their father's illness. After 15 months on crutches, though, Feiler feels like a different person to the man who took that blood test in May 2008. "There is this intimacy that you develop with the world and with other people who are hurting out there when you go slower," he says.
He believes he has picked the right people to teach what he has learnt to his daughters, if need be. "It's the natural evolution of the idea of a godparent, who was originally asked to be responsible for the spiritual development of a child.
"What this is is a broadening of that, to say that Jeff is my travel dad, David is my dream dad, Ben is my think dad, Joshua is my nature dad.
"There are different aspects of me beyond spirituality that are equally important and I want to make sure someone is in charge of communicating this to my girls."
The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler, Little, Brown, £9.99.