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Father with cancer communicates with 14-year-old daughter through napkins

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 2:10 p.m. MDT

Garth Callaghan, right, has included napkin notes in his daughter Emma's lunches for nine years.

Photo courtesy of Garth Callaghan

For Garth Callaghan of Glen Allen, Va., writing simple notes on napkins for his daughter’s lunch did not initially seem like an important component of her meal, but nine years later, he feels differently.

“[When Emma] started public school, either my wife or I would put a note in her lunchbox from time to time. It wasn’t a daily occurrence, and it was just really simple, like, ‘Have a great day,’ ‘We love you,’ ‘Good luck on your test,’ really basic, simple things,” Callaghan said in an interview with the Deseret News. “(But) as she became older … she started treating the napkin notes as if (they) were a required part of her lunchbox. She would often check in her lunchbox, and if there wasn’t a napkin note written, she’d come by with a lunchbox in her hand and kind of open it up and say, ‘Napkin note?’ That told me that there was something there, that there was something that was just as important as water in her lunch.”

After recognizing his now 14-year-old daughter’s positive reaction to his napkin notes, Callaghan began putting more effort into the messages.

“Between work and school and homework and sports and all these other things that are in our lives, we only have a couple of times a day that we can actually connect,” Callaghan said. “There’s the time that we drive her to school, we’ve got five or 10 minutes in the car. We have hopefully meal times, so we have hopefully half an hour or 45 minutes together as a family for dinner. And then we always make time with her at bedtime … so creating that additional moment of lunch, of her opening up her lunchbox and thinking about her dad, thinking about something that I’ve written, because she knows that that quote or that saying … generally has a purpose, even if it’s only a micro-moment … it’s really, really important to our family.”

But the role of napkin notes became even more meaningful when Callaghan was diagnosed with kidney cancer two years ago.

“I have been battling cancer for a couple of years now. … I’m not going to die from it, not this time, I mean. I may eventually, but not this time. But things like this just solidify my belief that as a dad, for myself, I owe it to my daughter to do whatever I can to impart wisdom, my philosophy on life, how to be a good person in the world, whatever I can, and one of the ways she’s receptive to it is napkin notes,” Callaghan said.

“If I sit down and talk with her about how to be a good friend, it’s a little bit of a more difficult conversation than if I write a couple of sentences on a napkin on how to be a good friend.”

As the primary lunch-maker in his home, Callaghan believes that when parents include “napkin notes” in their children's lunches, the notes can make a positive difference.

“It’s such a simple act, it just takes a few seconds a day, but if I can get one parent more to do this, I’m convinced that that relationship between that parent and that child is going to be a stronger relationship,” he said.

Emma Callaghan also values the napkin notes. She began gluing the notes from her father in a book to keep them as a physical reminder of her father.

“The reporter (with the Richmond Times) asked (Emma) why she had been saving the quotes … and putting them into a little book, and she said, ‘My dad was really sick and I was trying to save a piece of him,’” Callaghan said. “She had never expressed that to me, and it just completely blew me away.”

For Callaghan, the physicality of the napkin notes resonates with his daughter more than an email or text message.

“I know (writing out napkin notes) sounds crazy because I’m a computer guy, and I love apps, I love texts and I love iPhones and everything like that, but there’s absolutely something humbling and down-to-earth about writing a real note,” he said. “It’s tangible, it’s something she can hold, and, frankly, she turned it into her own thing where she started saving them.”

Since sharing his experience, Callaghan has received positive feedback on his Napkin Notes Facebook page.

“You are going to ROCK 3rd grade! We love you. — Mom & Dad,” Ariane Herrholz Grabill wrote for her child on the Napkin Notes Facebook page. “It’s not poetic, but it’s the first of many,” she wrote about the napkin.

After realizing the power a note can hold for someone, Callaghan began sending napkin notes in the mail to people who could use some encouragement.

“I don’t believe that this is the solution to all the world’s ills, and world peace isn’t suddenly going to come about because parents are doing napkin notes, but maybe our individual relationships will get a lot better,” Callaghan said. “I am very purpose-driven with this. I really feel that this is something that is so simple, and so easy to do, and will make such a difference in their child’s life.”

Abby Stevens is a writer for the DeseretNews.com Faith and Family sections. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University–Idaho. Contact her at astevens@deseretdigital.com.

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