Katie Patton
February 03, 2014 8:00 am

There are acts of kindness that serve to brighten our day and then there are acts of love, so simple and sincere, they become transformative; the simple knowledge that they exist has a magical way of warming our hearts and making us want to be better people. Often it takes only a moment of one’s time to have this type of impact on someone, or many someone’s, as kindness has a tendency to spread fast and furious. No one brings truth to this notion more than Garth Callaghan, a father who made a promise to his daughter Emma, the promise of 826 napkin notes.

It can be difficult for a parent to let a child know just how much he or she is loved. In an effort to ensure his daughter Emma knew he was always thinking of her as she headed off to kindergarten, Mr. Callaghan started leaving little notes on the napkins he would stick in her lunchbox. In the beginning, he would sporadically use simple words or drawings with the goal of making Emma smile. As time went on, his notes became the non-negotiable daily ritual they now share, sentiments of good luck for a big softball game, reminders of how much she is loved or a quote he hopes will inspire her to chase her dreams. It turns out that, as the depth of the napkin notes grew, so did their importance to Emma.

Over the last several years, Callaghan has twice battled kidney cancer and is currently living with prostate cancer. While his commitment to Emma’s daily lunchbox love has never wavered, his condition has served to raise the stakes of his promise to her. After reading an article about “because I said I would,” the non-profit organization that works to teach the importance of keeping promises, Callaghan decided to pledge that his daughter would have a note in her lunchbox every single day, come rain or come shine, until the day she graduated high school. This week he explained his promise to the Today Show, saying, “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.” So, with a stack of napkins and a pen, Callaghan sat down to write 826 napkin notes, one for every day of school his daughter had left; a number that would allow him to keep the promise he made to her.

With a mere 40 notes left to write, Callaghan’s completed napkins sit in his “just in case pile,” a cabinet filled with quote-laden paper inspired by Audrey Hepburn, Gandhi, Fred Rodgers and, his favorite, Dr. Seuss. Right now though, these notes are simply the symbol of a promise kept, a back-up plan, because every morning Emma’s father wakes up and writes her a brand new note. It is the act of creating a personal thought from father to daughter that is the most important to Garth.

“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. 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.”

For now, Callaghan is more than happy to leave the previously written inspiration tucked away for a time they both hope never comes, instead, scribing words appropriate for the feelings, challenges or celebrations of each new day together.

It isn’t hard to imagine that Emma’s affection for the notes has grown over the years, for numerous reasons. Not only does she appreciate knowing her dad is thinking of her during the day, she also loves how they help make her feel closer to her dad during the busy school year; a time when homework and sports cut into their quality time together. Callaghan’s daughter even loves how her friends have come to look forward to her father’s daily napkin notes. A growing attachment to her special messages has led her to tear the written part from the napkin for safe keeps, placing at least one note per week in a memory book.

“I love the napkin notes for a couple of reasons, not just the obvious ones such as knowing my dad is thinking about me or learning 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.”

These napkins of love and inspiration may have taken on an even deeper meaning to the pair as they faced and continue to face the tough hands life has dealt but, Callaghan has insisted this is not a story about cancer; he insists it is about leaving Emma a legacy of his philosophies and ensuring she knows how much he loves her. I would certainly agree with Mr. Callaghan. This is not a story about cancer but rather, a story about a father who has taken a sincere interest in his child; a father who is taking the time, every single day, to make sure he is an active participant in his daughter’s life; a father who is showing what it means to keep a promise and, most importantly, a dad who is striving to ensure a child is shown love and kindness from at least one person everyday. This is a story that shows all of us how transformative a napkin, a pen and a little kindness can be.

Growing up, I had a Garth Callaghan. In fact, I was lucky enough to have two, with both a father and a mother who understood the art of “napkin love.” I received lunchbox notes during the school year, notes of encouragement on my pillow after long nights at a summer job and e-mails every morning through college telling me I could do it, whatever “it” was, if I just took “one thing at a time.” As a result, I know first hand what it means to always know someone is thinking of you, believes in you or is standing in your corner. As an adult, I further understand how small moments of kindness can transform a person and I believe this is the exact message Garth Callaghan hopes we all take away from his story. You see, his cancer is secondary to his dedication to showing his daughter love and kindness in the small moments of life.

I hope each of us can keep the spirit of Garth and Emma Callaghan close to our heart and use the notion of “napkin love” in our daily lives. I hope more parents leave unexpected notes for their kids and we each consider sending our friends and loved ones cards, e-mails or even text messages just to let them know we think they are awesome. It is likely we will all find life more amazing if we promise to show kindness just because, to let people know we love them just because we do. Whether through an actual napkin note or an of-the-moment kindness of another variety, we can all champion the notion of “napkin love,” just like Mr. Callaghan.

Feature Image and secondary image via Today.

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