Six dads for my twin daughters

A father who has cancer chooses men who will be there when he isn’t

Photograph by Steve Simon

Bruce Feiler’s twin daughters were three when he was diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer in his leg. Feiler’s first thoughts were worries about how his death would affect his girls. Then an idea occurred to him. What if he could find a group of male friends to sub in for him as dad? As he thought about the idea more, he decided each dad should represent a different aspect of his personality. That way, the friends could function as a council, answering his daughters’ questions along the way. The Council of Dads, Feiler’s new book, tells the story of the men who pledged to help.

“I almost didn’t tell [my wife] Linda about my idea. It would be too upsetting for her to imagine, too morbid to consider,” he writes. But his wife embraced the plan. “We didn’t start out with a preconceived number [of dads]—and didn’t care whether the men were fathers themselves. As Linda kept repeating, ‘I want men I can call when I face some challenge and the girls come to me and ask, what would Daddy think of this?’ ”

Among the (eventually six) “dads” was Max Stier, Feiler’s roommate at Yale. Feiler knew Stier had suffered a tragedy early in his life when his father, a surgeon, shot himself, a suicide with no note. “Two decades later,” he writes in the book, “I was on the bathroom floor, heaving, shivering, and Max had flown in to be by my side. That’s when I realized the grim bond we shared: Max’s father had died when he was three, the same age as my girls. The man I knew best had grown up in the situation I feared the most.”

During Stier’s visit, Feiler tested the waters. “So let’s just say that in 10 years, Tybee and Eden come to you and say, ‘You were the closest person to our father. The same thing happened to you that’s happened to us. What do we do?’ ” Feiler writes that Stier reflected for a moment, then answered, “I would start by saying how much you loved them. The most important thing a parent can do, I believe, is water a child with love. I would water your children with love.”

“But what would you tell them to do with the pain?” Feiler asked. “When you lose someone, the loss becomes the dominant memory,” Stier said. “You have to build a rival memory. We went here and did this . . . take the negative pain and create a positive side to it.”

Feiler, who was born and raised in Savannah, Ga., also tapped his oldest childhood chum for the council. “[Ben Edwards] was the friend whose birthday I never forgot and whose childhood phone number I can still remember.”

“My earliest memory of you,” Edwards told Feiler, “is our holding hands, walking into kindergarten.” It’s “the southern thing,” Edwards said. “Loyalty. Honesty. Friendship.” These were the qualities Feiler wanted Ben to impart to his girls. “He would convey the importance of being from a place. How you carry that place with you wherever you go. ‘This is where your daddy came from,’ he would tell the girls. ‘This is where you come from, too.’ ”

For the final council member, Feiler chose his surgeon, Dr. John Healey. “He had a string of wise expressions: ‘I hate your cancer as much as you do’; ‘This is a war and I intend to win it’; ‘Things like this change you, usually for the better.’ ” Again, Feiler tested the waters with a question. “It’s 15 years from now. One of my daughters comes to you and says, ‘Why did my daddy die?’ What would you tell her?”

“The master of pauses paused for longer than I have ever witnessed. Then he cleared his throat. ‘I would say that there is no simple answer to that,’ he said. ‘On the one hand, everybody dies. Many people actually never live, and your daddy lived. He lived well and he provided a great example to you.’ ”

“So she says to you, ‘How should I live?’ ”

“He thought for a minute. ‘Have a joy in everything you do. Help those around you. Mark a mark on this world.’ ” Feiler laughs on the phone remembering his surgeon’s words. “Just not the kind of mark he left on me!” he told Maclean’s.

Today, Feiler is cancer-free. For a year and a half, he walked on crutches. Just last month, he started walking on his own without a cane.