Richmond writer Barb Fitzgerald profiles Garth Callaghan, famous author of the book "Napkin Notes
Three years ago Richmond’s Garth Callaghan was virtually unknown except in his neighborhood, his workplace, his church and his family circle.
Today Callaghan is a published author of an inspirational book about to be translated into more than a dozen languages. The film rights were recently optioned by New Line Cinemas. Callaghan has appeared with Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray and on The Today Show and Fox News. He’s been featured on National Public Radio and written up in The Huffington Post. He has more than 46,000 Facebook followers, and when he sends out a message to his social media outlets, he sometimes gets 25,000 hits in 24 hours.
But you wouldn’t want to trade places with him.
LOVING NOTES TO A DAUGHTER
The good news of Callaghan’s recent fame is the simple, beautiful idea that makes him so well known — the loving notes he has written to his young daughter over the years. The bad news is the very difficult and complicated fact that doctors tell Callaghan he’s dying.
Years ago when Garth and Lissa Callaghan’s now 15-year-old daughter, Emma, was in elementary school, her dad began to write little notes on paper napkins to include in her lunch bag — affectionate notes full of love and pride. At first those notes weren’t a big deal — Callaghan wasn’t even sure Emma read them. But one day when he was a bit slow getting the napkin into the bag, little Emma looked at her lunch quizzically and asked, “Napkin note?” He knew he was onto something.
In October 2011, the notes took on a deeper meaning. Garth Callaghan was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer. “At that point I started spending more time on the napkin messages,” he says. “I wanted Emma to understand how much I loved her and what our family is all about. And I also began to add some quotes from others, looking in particular for powerful words spoken by women.”
THE COLLECTION FOR A LIFETIME
He discovered a few months later that his daughter was not only saving his notes but keeping and cataloging them in a composition book. So he committed to making sure she would have a note to read every school day until her graduation, whatever happened to him. By his count, he would need 826 notes, and he set about to compile them. Those would become the basis of his book, Napkin Notes: Make Lunch Meaningful, Life Will Follow.
“One week I was just a dad writing notes for his daughter’s lunch bag,” he says. “The next week I was on The Today Show talking to Matt Lauer.”
As for the big message of the book? “The things that you think matter in your life — your car, your home, your bank account — none of that matters. It’s all about relationships. Don’t wait until the doctor gives you a dire diagnosis to write a note and connect. We’re all mortal. Start now.”
NO FEAR DESPITE THE CERTAIN END
As for Callaghan’s own dire diagnosis, “It doesn’t look good. My kidney cancer has metastasized to my liver and prostate.” He says he doesn’t get bogged down with fear — “I don’t feel pressure, I don’t lose sleep.” He continues to schedule events with his family well into the future. He continues to work at his regular job in IT despite his health problems and his newfound fame. “When I head out to work,” he says, “my family is able to remain normal. I want to continue to live as if I’m not going to die.” He adds, “I do have a certain awareness that I need to foster and pay attention to the Napkin Notes movement.”
What does he hope the book or movie will achieve? “I hope they make people work at their role as parents and make more people deepen a connection with those they love. There’s something about a handwritten note — something more than an email or a text message.”
Callaghan says he and his family receive about 100 notes each week since his illness became known. “My goal for the rest of my life is to help others,” he says. “If someone has cancer, I want to hold their hand and offer comfort.” (To make that goal easier, Callaghan put his home phone number in Napkin Notes.)
Emma told Lauer on The Today Show what the napkin notes have meant to her: She will have a part of her dad always with her, no matter what happens. And she has told her dad that she plans to put napkin notes in her children’s lunches, too.
Barbara Fitzgerald taught English at the University of Georgia and the College of Charleston before joining the Richmond advertising community. For the past 25 years, she has headed her own writing and PR shop, Wordsworth. Reach her at email@example.com.