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Garth Callaghan started slipping notes into his daughter Emma’s lunchbox when she was in kindergarten. She could barely read at the time, so he kept the napkin notes simple with easy words, sometimes using drawings or symbols.
Today, Callaghan's eighth-grade daughter has come to depend on those brief missives as a daily source of inspiration — and a reminder to never take her dad for granted.
Callaghan, 44, has battled kidney cancer twice over the last several years and currently lives with prostate cancer, a slow-growing disease. Recent blood work shows “no evidence” of kidney cancer these days, but Callaghan said his oncologist has bluntly told him that people with his medical history only have an eight percent change of surviving the next five years.
"This isn’t a story about cancer, because any parent at any time could be hit by a car or have a heart attack," he said, explaining to TODAY.com why he continues to write "napkin notes" to his daughter. "This is really about leaving a legacy so that she can understand some of my life philosophies and how much I love her.”
Callaghan is now striving to reach a goal of writing 826 napkin notes, one for each school day his daughter has left until her high school graduation. He came up with the goal after reading an article about “because I said I would,” a non-profit group that stresses the importance of keeping promises.
“That’s when I thought, I can write out napkin notes ahead of time, and have them ready if I can’t fulfill my own promise if something bad happens,” he said.
Callaghan has only about 40 notes left to write — the finished ones are sitting in a cabinet in his home office in Glen Allen, just outside the Virginia capital of Richmond. But he hasn’t slipped any of the notes he's banked into Emma's lunchbox yet — he's leaving those for his “just in case” pile. Every morning, he writes a brand-new note for his daughter.
Callaghan keeps all of his notes indexed on a spreadsheet. Sometimes he borrows a quote from a famous person, from Gandhi to Audrey Hepburn. His favorite quotes come from Dr. Seuss or childhood figure, Fred Rogers.
“A good portion of the notes are literally just letters from me to her. They start out, ‘Dear Emma,’ and I say something, and then I say, ‘Love, Dad,’” he said. “ I try to mix it up because frankly, sometimes she needs to hear that yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s game, and that’s a Babe Ruth quote.”
Callaghan said his napkin notes didn't become a daily ritual until Emma, his only child, reached third grade. Soon afterward, he started using the notes to provide her with motivation and support.
“If she had a big softball game that afternoon, I’d wish her some luck at the game. It became less of a, ‘Have a good day,’ to more of a ‘I know you’re a strong person. Believe in yourself. Be who you are,’” he said. “And really, I wanted to help make sure she developed into this nice, well-rounded young woman.”
Emma said all of her friends have come to depend on her napkin notes just as much as she has. She tries to save at least one each week.
"I love napkin notes for a couple reasons, not just the obvious ones such as knowing my dad is thinking about me or learning a new quotes,” she said. “I love them because they remind me not to take things for granted, because my dad started getting serious with them when he had cancer for the first time.”
The notes also make her feel a lot closer to her father.
“Because during the school year it’s hard for us to hang out because of my sports and homework,” she said.
Callaghan said his wife supports him writing the notes as a way of expressing the special bond he has with their daughter.
“We’re geek oriented, we play video games together, we like to talk about technology, and we have napkin notes,” he said. His wife and Emma have their own connection, spending "tremendous amounts of time together” in the kitchen.
“Yesterday they spent hours making all sorts of treats and goodies, and I didn’t feel excluded at all,” he said.
Callaghan has compiled many of the notes he has written in a booklet (available on Kindle and sold on Amazon.com) after being contacted by parents through his Facebook page seeking help on how they can make similar connections with their kids. He said he doesn’t mind when others crib from his notes.
“Even for me, and I’ve been doing this for such a long time, I know that staring at a blank napkin can be kind of daunting,” he said. “Think about how rushed parents are in the morning. My idea was just make it easy and help get them going and start that process. At the end of the day, does it help create this connection to your child? If it does, then that’s a success.”
Callaghan said he plans to release a second edition of his booklet, complete with 826 quotes.
“I wrote an epilogue to it,” he said. “It basically implies that I expect to be around long enough to write my grandkids napkin notes.”