Ever since his daughter Emma was in primary school, W. Garth Callaghan would jot down inspirational quotes and bits of dad wisdom onto napkins and slip the notes into her lunchbox. It became their special thing, their way to connect. He wanted to make sure Emma could read a note from her father every single school day until graduation — even if he was no longer around to write them.
Callaghan has been diagnosed with cancer five times since 2011. He believed that these napkin notes might eventually be the only thing Emma would have left of him. He wrote the memoir Napkin Notes: Make Lunch Meaningful, Life Will Follow, which Reese Witherspoon is adapting into a film. As he prepares to send Emma off to university this spring, Callaghan reflects on how he parents.
Name: W. Garth Callaghan
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Job: Napkin Notes Dad and author
Family: Wife Lissa and daughter Emma (18)
Tell us how Napkin Notes began.
When Emma was younger, I worked in a typical office setting, and missed eight to 10 hours of her day. I wanted to connect with her more than my schedule allowed, so I started writing napkin notes and sticking them into her lunch when she was in kindergarten. Sometimes I’d pop in a cookie or a piece of candy to make her lunch special. I wasn’t sure what mattered to her, the note or the treat.
When Emma was in second or third grade, I was in the kitchen prepping her lunch while sipping my morning cup of coffee. I hadn’t yet written a note. Emma scooped up her lunch bag, peered in, stomped over to me, and asked, “Napkin note?” That’s when I knew it mattered to her, and I committed to putting a note into each lunch.
I have been diagnosed with cancer five times. The first diagnosis came out of the blue and turned our world upside down. After my third diagnosis in 2013, I made a promise to write out all of the napkin notes Emma would need up until high school graduation.
I am by no means perfect, and there were days life just didn’t work in my favour. I have driven a note to school more than a few times. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have to ask the principal, “Can you please get this note into Emma’s lunch bag?”
Take us through your morning routine. What are your best tricks for getting out the door?
I have been taking daily chemo now for well over four years. My chemo brain is strong and I easily forget things. The key to any successful morning is planning, and that starts the night before. I review my schedule as well as the family schedule. I follow the same routine each day so that I am less likely to forget something.
Once everyone is set, I take a few minutes and write at least 800 words before starting work.
How much outside help do you get as a parent? Who or what can’t you live without?
I’d like to think that we don’t need more help than any other typical family, but I know that my health impacts so much of our lives that it’s impossible to survive alone.
Our friends and church family step up to help with carpooling, delivering egg drop soup when I am nauseated, fetching prescriptions or groceries, and even raking our yard. I am happy to say we don’t have to lean on everyone all of the time, but we couldn’t make it without this strong support circle.
What are the gadgets, apps, charts or tools you rely on?
I am a self-professed geek and love gadgets. I can’t remember everything I need to, so my Google Pixel is never out of my sight. I love the pictures this phone takes! I use Wunderlist for to-dos (chemo brain!) and Evernote for cataloguing. I keep all of my medical records on Evernote so they are easily accessible for me at any time. I track health issues with PatientsLikeMe to help others with kidney cancer.
Has becoming a parent changed the way you work?
Being a parent has made me realise that work is important, but not nearly as important as raising the next generation. I work so that I can be the dad who never misses a softball game. There was a time when I travelled quite a bit for work, and I wrote out napkin notes before each trip so Emma always had a note in her lunch.
What does your evening routine like?
Fatigue is the biggest side effect from my treatment and I really need to wind down after 7:00PM. During the school year, we’d often be at the ballfield until late evening and I’d spend my time doing my favourite thing: Cheering Emma and her team on.
Now that we’re in a permanent off-season, I am an avid reader and try to read a few chapters of something. I am in the middle of Mindset by Carol Dweck. Next up is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
How do you decompress?
I love to play video games. I play any version of Halo on my Xbox One, and I play Star Wars Galaxies on my PC.
I’d like to say I am also an avid gym-goer, but I am not as good as I should be. My oncologist told me today that I should act as if I am training for a marathon and has motivated me to step up my game.
What’s been your proudest moment as a parent?
A single moment? I can’t. I just can’t. I am tearing up even remembering all of the moments that I can easily list off. Like ...
... the time when Emma was the incredibly kind and gentle coach playing Buddy Ball with the special needs team.
... the time when an impossible-to-stop hard grounder was hit to Emma at shortstop, and she caught it and effortlessly backhanded it to the third baseman without even looking where the player was.
... the time when I asked her if it was OK to write a very personal book about our lives and she responded eagerly, “Oh Dad, I want you to write the book!”
What moment are you least proud of?
Emma was about 18 months old and was jumping on her bed. I told her to stop jumping there. Why did I do that? Did it really matter that she was jumping on her bed? I lost my cool and told her if she jumped on the bed, I’d spank her. She stopped, looked me straight in the eye, and jumped some more.
What could I do? We sat together in her room, both of us crying, and I swatted her bottom once with just enough force to crush my heart.
What do you want your kid to learn from your example?
I want Emma to know the value of trying and failing, then trying better and failing better.
What are your favourite funny/weird/special family rituals?
We have this weird thing for an overabundance of fall produce. We pick pumpkins at an “All You Can Carry” pumpkin patch and have perfected the art of carrying more pumpkins that we can remotely use, all for $10. (The trick is to load the first layer of pumpkins stem side down.) We also pick our own apples at an orchard in Charlottesville. We pick so many that I have to make two trips to the car! I think our family record was over 32kg.
One very funny, weird thing about us and our dear friends: We sing the diarrhoea song together, but only when camping. I don’t think we’ve ever actually had bowel problems out there, but the song is funny to sing around a campfire.
Has anyone ever given you a piece of parenting advice that has really stuck with you?
Rachel Macy Stafford wrote a piece on the most important six words you can say to your child and I took that advice to heart. It changed my perspective immediately and I started to practise it at the very next softball game I attended.
The six words: “I love to watch you play.”
What’s the hardest part about being a parent?
Learning to fail well in front of your child.
What’s your favourite part of the day?
I know this will be corny, but every part of every day. I have metastatic kidney cancer and the likelihood to become cured is practically zero. Whenever someone asks me how I am doing, I always respond with, “Each day on this side of the grass is a good day,” and genuinely mean it.
How can parents find ways to connect with their kids?
Find the small thing, the ritual, that’ll be just between you and your child. It could be anything! Try flying paper aeroplanes from the second story window, wearing the same T-shirt to the movies, memorising a favourite story word-for-word, or learning how to dance in tandem like they do in the movie Big.
Any other wisdom you’d like to share?
Write a note on the napkin. You can use a sticky note or regular paper and put in somewhere safe if you don’t pack a lunch. Last year I wrote about 180 napkin notes for Emma. Five were super successful and were brought back home to be tacked onto the message board in the kitchen or placed on Emma’s dresser.
I had put this one on her car seat one random morning and it stayed on her dresser all year:
Oh, and your kids absolutely know when you’re looking at your phone during their game/meet/performance. Don’t think you’re fooling them one bit.