In the worst week of my life, I came up with the most hopeful idea I've ever had.
In July 2008, I learned that I had a seven-inch cancerous tumor in my left femur. I instantly worried about my three-year-old twin daughters and what life might be like for them. "Would they wonder who I was? Would they wonder what I thought?"
Three days later, I awoke with an idea of how I might give them my voice. I would reach out to six men from all parts of my life and ask them to form a "Council of Dads."
My initial instinct was not to tell my wife, Linda. We should focus on the positive. But I quickly lost my resolve. Linda cried when I told her, but then she started rejecting my nominees. "I love him," she would say, "but would never ask him for advice." Starting a Council was a very efficient way of finding out what my wife really thought of my friends!
We needed a set of guidelines.
First, no family members. We figured our family would already have relationships with the girls.
Second, men only. Probably half my closest friends are women, but we sought to fill the dad space in their lives.
Third, intimacy over longevity. We thought some of my more recent friendships might better capture the dad I want to be.
Finally, a dad for every side. We looked for men who might capture different aspects of my personality.
Eventually I decided on six men - from my oldest buddy to my newest friend - and I asked each one to convey a different lesson to my girls - how to live, how to travel, how to think, how to dream. It was like forming a team of godparents.
I then asked each for a single piece of advice to convey to my daughters. Their answers ranged from how to take a trip - "Be a traveler, not a tourist" - to how to make your dreams come true - "Don't see the wall." One advised not to seek answers but to "live the questions." One counseled that even in hard times they should still "Harvest the miracles" around them.
And therein has proven the magic of The Council of Dads. We did it for our girls. But it has transformed us. It built a bridge between our friends and our kids. It created an entirely new community in our lives. It gave us a colorful bouquet of new life rules to live by, like what is the proper way to jump in a mud puddle or why take a walk with a turtle.
Last week, The Council of Dads convened for the first time ever as a group. (Seeing them together, I thought for a second I should have called them The Council of Bald Spots.) It was difficult to get them in one place. They argued about politics, parenting, and height. In short, they were men. (My wife remarked that she had wondered what they would talk about. The answer: sports cars!)
But our girls didn't care. They were delighted as they moved from Dad to Dad, reveling in the private bond they share with each one. Our girls don't know the shadow that hangs over the idea. All they know is that these men are not just Daddy's friends.
They are their friends.
That night, each man spoke of how the experience had changed him. One felt the Council helped replace the voice of his own father. Another took the advice he gave our girls and changed how he parents. The last person was the contrarian of the group.
"When I first heard the idea of the Council, I rejected it," he said. "You would triumph over your illness. We wouldn't need to exist. Today I realized I was wrong. Whether we're healthy or sick, men or women, we all need to be reminded of what's most valuable in our lives. And seeing the looks on the girls' faces today, I now know we all need our own Council."
Follow Bruce Feiler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brucefeiler