Roy Exum: Her Dad Writes On Napkins

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When Emma Callaghan started elementary school eight years ago, her father had a job that sometimes required him to travel a day or two during the week. So he came up with the simple yet clever idea of writing a note or thought on the edge of a paper napkin and every day when his daughter would go to school, she would read his notes and famous quotations as she opened her lunchbox. She would know he was thinking of her. “If the universe tried for billions of years it would never be able to create another you.”

On days when her dad was traveling, his wife would take one of some napkins he had signed beforehand and put it in with her lunch so that no matter where her dad was, Emma would know – every day – that he had her on his mind. “Don’t forget to be awesome! Love, Dad””

On and on its gone; a new note written on the edge of a white napkin in the familiar handwriting. Some years ago Emma started bringing the napkins back home, putting each in a scrapbook for safe keeping because they meant so much to her. “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games. – Babe Ruth.”

Both Garth and his daughter, now 13, laugh about those rare days when she would beat him to the kitchen and find the note hadn’t yet joined the sandwich and piece of fruit she would take to school. Her dad says about the second or third time that happened it dawned on him that his daughter really enjoyed the daily messages. “May the hand of a friend always be near yours. – Irish blessing.”

Today Emma Callaghan is in the eighth grade at Moody Middle School in Henrico County, Va., and her notes have taken on legendary status. Her classmates want to know what they say. They bring smiles and laughter and they’ve “grown up” just like Emma, the simple stars and easy words of those first years in grammar school giving way to heavier thought. “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything. – Alexander Hamilton.”

A couple of years ago things changed for Garth Callaghan, too. In the fall of 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer. And in the months leading towards surgery, it dawned on him that the silly little napkin notes might be the only thing his daughter would have if the cancer couldn’t be stopped. “Never let yesterday use up today – Richard Nelson.”

There was even one day, after the first tumor was successfully removed and he was at home resting following surgery, that he saw Emma tearing up one of the napkins. Horrified he had written something wrong or hurt her feelings with something insensitive, he finally learned that every day she would tear away the thought of the day and paste it into her scrap book. “Believe you can and you are halfway there – Teddy Roosevelt.”

So in the way a silly little exercise becomes a lasting memory, last November Garth Callaghan figured it would be 826 days before his daughter would graduate from high school and he pledged to have that many napkin-notes on hand in case the family needed them. In 2012 cancer returned in his prostate and now the kidney cancer is back as well. So he got busy and has just finished stocking the pantry with enough napkin notes to last throughout his daughter’s high school years. “Feelings are like waves – you can’t tell which ones are coming but you can choose the ones to surf.”

Not only that. There is now a page on and his own website, There is a small Kindle book on sale that can be downloaded at that contains the quotes and Garth explained why in a napkin note he wrote for his daughter meant for us: Your child will eat lunch 2340 times before he or she graduates. Pack. Write. Connect. Make lunch meaningful. “We are so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take the time to enjoy where we are. – Calvin & Hobbs”

Lately Callaghan has started to notice that he isn’t spending as much time with Emma as he would like. After all, she’s a teenager, is in the school’s honors program, plays softball and is on the swimming and diving teams. “At some point the notes might cease to be cool,” he told a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “but, right now, it is a special thing that we share.” “Success always takes help. Failure can be done alone.”

But Emma shakes her head and laughs at the notion she will ever grow tired of her father’s daily ritual. She says she always looks forward to his daily notes and admits she sometimes peeks at them before lunch. “It gives me something to look forward to every day,” she said, explaining when her dad was sick the wonderful messages gave her a piece of him every day at school. “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.”

Garth Callaghan believes that if other parents can see his notes and copy them – or invent ways to share their advice and dreams and wisdom with their children -- the world might become more gentle. With no more than a white paper napkin, a thought and his own handwriting, Garth Callaghan has given Emma far more than he could ever have dreamed when she started kindergarten. “Life doesn’t always give you a second chance … so take the first one.”

Garth Callaghan has written enough notes on napkins for his eighth-grade daughter to take to lunch every day until she graduates from high school.
Garth Callaghan has written enough notes on napkins for his eighth-grade daughter to take to lunch every day until she graduates from high school.

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