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What Friends Are For: 5 Ways to Be a Better Friend Today

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When my wife and I had identical twin daughters five years ago, we thought our friends would consider it "All Hands on Deck." Instead it was "Run the Other Way!" When I got cancer, we thought it would be "Run the Other Way." Instead we experienced the greatest act of friendship we ever felt.

When I learned I was sick, I worried about my three-year-old twin daughters. Would they wonder who I was? Would they yearn for my love? My voice?

I soon thought of a way 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" to help father my potentially fatherless daughters. These are the men who know me best. Men who know my voice.

I asked each one for the single piece of advice he would pass on to my girls.

Their counsel will shape my girls's lives. But their friendship has already transformed ours.

Here are five things I learned from "The Council of Dads" about how to be a better friend. Today.

1. Call a Friend a Friend. One unexpected gift of the Council of Dads was that it forced me to formalize what otherwise would have gone unsaid. It obliged me to sit down with my closest friends and tell them what they meant to me. By inviting these men into the innermost space of our lives we cemented a new kind of bond. So Lesson one: Tell your friends how you feel about them. You'll be surprised how they react.

2. Tend Your Tadpoles. To my surprise, the friend I most wanted to call when I got sick is the friend I rarely see. He's the friend I call my "tadpole" because we used to fish polywogs out of a ditch when we were young. He is the friend who was always there, back before the memories begin. He's the friend who lived around the corner, who sat next to me at lunch, whose phone number I still remember. He's the friend with whom I have nothing in coming except that we grew up together. And when I needed him most, he's the friend who was suddenly back. So Lesson two: Tend your tadpoles. You never know when you might need a pal.

3. Have A Difficult Conversation. Cancer, I found, is a passport to intimacy. It's an invitation -- maybe even a mandate -- to enter the most vital, frightening and sensitive human arenas. It's a responsibility to address those issues we rarely want to discuss, but we feel enriched
when we do. In that spirit, find occasion to ask a difficult question of someone you love, renew a connection you once held dear, or allow yourself to forgive a long-ago hurt. Lesson three: Reach out to that friend you've been avoiding.

4. Give Your Friends a Job. New parents have long asked friends to play a role in their kids' lives. But what does that mean anymore? And who has the time? With my Council of Dads, I asked each friend to teach my girls a specific task -- how to travel, how to live, how to question, how to dream. It was like creating a Team of Godparents: SportsDad, NatureDad, MusicDad. My friends liked it because it gave them ownership over a specific area. I liked it because it divvied up sides of my personality. Lesson four: Assign each friend a special role in your family's life.

5. Form a Council of Moms or Council of Dads. I created a Council of Dads because I was facing a life-threatening illness. My wife formed a Council of Moms because she saw how much it enriched my life. A divorced woman I know generated a Council of Dads because she wanted males voices for her son. A military father assembled a Council because he spent so much time away from his children. What we've all found is that inviting our friends to spend time with our children creates a new kind of community. Our friends become our children's friends and everyone grows closer.

So my Final Lesson: Ask your tadpole, your camp counselor, your college roommate, your colleague, your confidante, your teammate, your camping buddy or just your pal to be more present in your -- and your children's -- lives.

And behold your friends anew.

Watch the first ever meeting of "The Council of Dads." And for tips on creating your own Council or Moms or Dads visit councilofdads.com.