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Garth Callaghan has been writing notes to his daughter Emma ever since she was in the second grade. Sometimes it’s just a few words of encouragement, sometimes a famous quote.
Now Emma is 14. And Callaghan, age 44, has been forced to take a closer look at his own mortality. He’s been diagnosed with cancer three times since November 2011.
“Shortly after my first surgery, I found that she had been ripping the quotes off the napkins and putting them into a composition book with a date,” Callaghan told Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “So at that point, I knew she was attempting to save some of the more special ones.”
Callaghan decided to play it safe and write 826 napkin notes ahead of time. That way, no matter what happens to him, Emma will have a note in her lunch every single day until she graduates from high school.
On how the notes started
“I remember eating lunch with my daughter while she was in kindergarten and eating her favorite lunch, which was chicken patty on a bun, and it was utterly disgusting. And at that point, my family and I decided that Emma really needed to bring lunch as much as possible. And so, one of the things we really liked to do was to make the lunch special, and sometimes it was a pudding cup, or sometimes it was a cookie or a piece of candy. And occasionally, there was a napkin with a small note on it. And back then, they were very simple notes, things that said, ‘I love you, have a great day.’ This was an incredibly great connection that we were having, and it was something that she clearly looked forward to every day.”
How he comes up with the notes
“Part of this Napkin Note process is to pay attention as I see quotes or sayings I think are inspirational or motivational, especially to a teenaged girl. I keep track of them. So a good portion of my quotes were actually personal notes to Emma, and one of my favorites goes something to the effect of: ‘Dear Emma, When I think to myself that I need a miracle, all I have to do is look into your eyes, and realize that I already have one.'”
What he wants Emma to take from the notes
“When I was Emma’s age, I definitely did not feel comfortable with myself, and I really want my daughter to have a very strong sense of who she is, and I want her to be able to express that and not be concerned about peer pressure and really just enjoy who she is.”
“I have faced my own mortality. Frankly, every parent should face their own mortality, and this has just brought it front and center for me. So I would really like her to sit back and understand how incredibly loved she is, how much her dad and her mom support her, and how much we care about the person she becomes.”
GARTH CALLAGHAN: "The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why" - Mark Twain.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is Garth Callaghan. And that's one of the inspiring quotes he's written to his daughter, Emma, ever since she was in elementary school. Garth writes the quotes on the corner of a napkin that he tucks into Emma's school lunch.
CALLAGHAN: "If you can dream it, you can do it" - Walt Disney.
CHAKRABARTI: Emma is 14 years old now.
CALLAGHAN: "You're off to do great things. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. Get on your way" - Dr. Seuss.
CHAKRABARTI: Garth and his family have faced some pretty difficult challenges lately. He's been diagnosed with cancer - not once, but three times since November 2011.
CALLAGHAN: "Risk something, or forever sit with your dreams" - Herb Brooks.
CHAKRABARTI: So what does a father do? Well, he buys a whole lot of napkins, and writes and writes and writes. Garth Callaghan is writing 826 of these tender napkin notes for Emma, one for every single school lunch until she graduates from high school. And Garth joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us.
CALLAGHAN: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if you could first start by telling us the story of sort of when, where and how you decided to write that first-ever napkin note.
CALLAGHAN: I remember having lunch with my daughter while she was in kindergarten, and eating her favorite lunch, which was chicken patty on a bun; and it was utterly disgusting. And at that point, my family and I decided that Emma really needed to bring lunch as much as possible.
And so one of the things that we really liked to do was to make the lunch special. And sometimes ,it was a pudding cup, or sometimes it was a cookie or a piece of candy. And occasionally, there was a napkin with a small note on it. And back then, they were very simple notes, things that said: I love you. Have a great day. This was an incredibly great connection that we were having, and it was something that she clearly looked forward to every day.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you know if she keeps them?
CALLAGHAN: Shortly after my first surgery, I found that she had been ripping the quotes off of the napkins and putting them into a composition book, with a date. So at that point, I knew that she was attempting to save some of the more special ones.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Well, we should say that we're having this conversation because your story has gone viral online. And a lot of media outlets have picked it up, but it's being played out as if the end of your life is soon. But that's not the case. I understand that you're actually doing all right, right now?
CALLAGHAN: Technically speaking, I am what people would consider - or what the doctors consider NED, which is no evidence of disease. And I understand that that does not make a good headline, so the various media outlets have taken some liberty. That being said, my doctors are, in fact, very concerned that I am a high-risk patient for recurrence. And we are doing everything we can within our power, to remain diligent.
CHAKRABARTI: OK. I am glad, though, to hear that right now, at least you are NED, as you said. That's wonderful to hear. But nevertheless, you have this project to write more than 800 of these napkin notes. Tell us why that number - 826 napkin notes - is important.
CALLAGHAN: Sure. There were 826 school days between Christmas break this year, and the time that my daughter would graduate high school. And I wanted to make sure that in the event that I was not able to write napkin notes, that there would be always napkin notes available. And I still have a few to go, but I'm working diligently to try to get them finished this week.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you have some favorites?
CALLAGHAN: Yes. So part of this napkin note process is to pay attention. And as I see quotes or sayings that I think are inspirational or motivational - especially to a teenage girl - I keep track of them. So a good portion of my quotes are actually personal notes to Emma. And one of my favorites is - it goes something to the effect of: Dear Emma, when I think to myself that I need a miracle, all I have to do is look into your eyes and realize that I already have one.
CHAKRABARTI: You're also having to think about your daughter and the person she is. And she's 14 now, right?
CHAKRABARTI: And the young woman she's going to become by the time she finishes high school. So you're having to think about Emma - her - in a way that may be, you know, parents do unconsciously, but not so deeply and actively, in such a short period of time.
CALLAGHAN: Well, I think one of the things I can say to that is when I was Emma's age, I definitely did not feel comfortable with myself. And I really want my daughter to have a very strong sense of who she is. And I want her to be able to express that; and not be concerned about peer pressure, and really just enjoy who she is.
CHAKRABARTI: And you're modeling and demonstrating and being a remarkable role model to her because she's now writing napkin notes back to you. Is that right?
CALLAGHAN: Yes. I guess it was two weeks ago that Emma gave me two notes, in my work lunch and in my work backpack. And I literally walked around the office the first time and showed everybody that I had this note. And I could not believe that this thing that we do in our family became something that was full circle. I was so moved by that.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell us what she wrote to you?
CALLAGHAN: I can. She said: Dear Dad, if all of my friends jumped off of a bridge, it was because I told them to do it. Your daughter is a leader, not a follower.
And then she had a P.S.- because it was written on a paper towel - she said P.S., I think you've used all of the napkins.
CHAKRABARTI: That is awesome. But does she know - does Emma know that there are 800, or there soon will be 826 of them; that she'll receive one every school day?
CALLAGHAN: Well, she's listening in the studio, so she does now.
CHAKRABARTI: So she does now. (Laughter)
CALLAGHAN: We have - we asked her to not read on the Internet a lot of the sensationalist headlines that were out about me. But I'm sure at this point, because she does live in a digital world herself, that she is aware of this. Frankly, up until this point, I had not shared with her that that was my goal.
CHAKRABARTI: And Emma, since I guess you can hear this, your dad is an incredible man, and you two are lucky to have each other. Your whole family seems to be unbelievably loving. So Garth, first and foremost, everyone hearing this - including, you know, me, as I'm having this conversation with you - hopes more than anything that when Emma receives napkin 826, that you are still here. In the event that that doesn't happen, what would you hope that she thinks about who you are when she gets to napkin 826, and looks back on this collection?
CALLAGHAN: (Pauses) This is a really difficult question for me. So I have faced my own mortality - frankly, every parent should be aware of their own mortality - and this has just brought it front and center for me. So I would really like her to sit back and understand how incredibly loved she is, how much her dad and her mom support her, and how much we care about the person she becomes.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I have no doubt that she will understand those things, and possibly even understands them right now. Garth, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CALLAGHAN: Oh, you're so very welcome. It's truly my pleasure. I was so incredibly excited to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: Garth Callaghan is the Napkin Notes Dad. We've got a link to a lot of the notes he's written to Emma. It's at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.