Napkin Notes of Love

July 2018

Garth Callaghan

Garth Callaghan is known as the “Napkin Notes Dad.” He began writing notes to his daughter Emma when she was in kindergarten. Eventually it became a daily practice, tucking a napkin note in her lunch with words of love or encouragement. A cancer diagnosis caused Callaghan to worry he wouldn’t see Emma graduate high school. So he wrote 826 notes in advance, just in case. The story went viral and in 2014 HarperOne published Callaghan’s book, Napkin Notes; Make Lunch Meaningful, Life Will Follow.

Garth CallaghanPhoto by Audra Harris, 12thstreetportraits.com

Ever since his daughter Emma was in grade school, Garth Callaghan, of Glen Allen, Virginia, has been writing her a little note on a napkin and slipping it into her school lunch. The notes express his love, encouragement, and pride. After he was diagnosed in 2013 with kidney cancer for the second time, when Emma was 14, Callaghan committed to writing 826 notes to his daughter, in case he did not live through the rest of her school years. Callaghan’s story went viral and he became known as the “Napkin Notes Dad.” His book Napkin Notes: Make Lunch Meaningful, Life Will Follow was published by HarperOne in 2014.

In 1999, on the day my daughter Emma was born, I woke up, had a leisurely breakfast, walked the dog, and read the newspaper—all while my wife Lissa was at the hospital.

It’s safe to say I wasn’t ready to be a dad.

I’ve always been selfish, especially selfish with my time. But the day we brought Emma home from the hospital (yes, I finally went there), that’s when everything flipped for me: I was responsible for this little being. I thought, I need to figure this fatherhood thing out.

I dove headfirst into being a dad. I decided I would do whatever I needed to do to help her become a strong, confident woman, whether that was playing princess or Star Wars or coaching softball or helping out at school.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I’ve said and done things I regret. But that never stopped me from actively wanting to be a better dad every day.

One of the reasons I chose to write daily notes to Emma and put them in her lunch box was because I recognized she might not be receptive to hearing loving, encouraging, or guiding words from me. Maybe what I was trying to say to her didn’t come across or maybe she just wasn’t in the mood to hear it. In order for me to make sure my message was there on the day she was most receptive to it, I had to write it down every day.

It’s humbling for me to think about it, but that’s really the way God is with us, right? God’s there all the time, giving us support and love and understanding every second of every day. We may or may not be receptive to that grace, but because it’s there all the time, when we turn and we’re receptive, it’s there.

My commitment to writing daily notes to Emma was threatened in 2011. I was feeling tired. My back hurt a little. My stomach always seemed big, even though I was exercising regularly. For months, I dismissed what I was experiencing. I was 42, running my own business, being a dad and husband—of course I was tired. But one afternoon in November 2011, I was chasing after our dog through the woods, jumping over tree roots and whatnot. That night before I went to bed, my urine was sangria red. A couple days later, it happened again so I went to the doctor. It turned out I had a tumor the size of a large grapefruit on my left kidney. I was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

Doctors removed the tumor and thought they got it all. During a checkup eight months later in August 2012, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A year later, in October 2013, the kidney cancer returned and there was a small growth on my left adrenal gland. In February 2014, I started daily chemo. About six weeks later, we discovered the cancer had metastasized to my liver and right adrenal gland.

Since then, I’ve taken daily chemo. The treatment will not cure my cancer. It’s meant to stop it from growing or spreading. My body has responded remarkably well to this. Sometimes the radiologist will look at my MRI and have a hard time seeing anything. Everything seems to be stable, but not stable enough for me to stop the daily chemo.

Statistically speaking, about 8 percent of metastatic kidney cancer patients are still alive after five years.

I’m still here. I credit God.

Emma graduates this year. Unless I drive recklessly or run with scissors or something, I’ll be here for that. It’s utterly amazing to me.

My primary job as a dad right now is writing little quips on pieces of paper that get Cheetos® dust on them. If I’m lucky, every once in a while Emma will save one of the notes and put it on the kitchen bulletin board. Some of the ones she keeps I don’t think are fantastic, but they are to her. She was receptive to that message on the day I wrote it. There’s one from a few months back that says, “Dear Emma: You believed in Santa for all these years. You can believe in yourself for five minutes” along with a PS: “I believe in you all of the time.”

At the end of the school year, out of 180 notes, she’s pinned just three notes to the bulletin board. That’s not much of a batting average, but to me, when Emma chooses one, that’s when I know I’ve hit it out of the park.