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Everyday Action Hero

Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud. – Maya Angelou


During prep for my surgery, one of the nurses asked the routine question, “Do you understand the risks and benefits of this procedure?” What can
I say? By this point I had a sense of humor about it all.

“Yes,” I said. “The risk is I die, and the benefit is I get to live.”

I don’t think they were quite prepared for that.

Recovery was a piece of cake this time. I didn’t even end up filling my prescription for the pain medication. But when the pathology came back two weeks later, it wasn’t good news. The cancer hadn’t been fully removed. It was still in my body. I was officially placed in the high-risk category.

I couldn’t pretend anymore. This was it. I was going to die. It was on the horizon. I wasn’t sure how far away, but I could see it.

We were hoping to get into some experimental trials for kidney cancer. I was really focused on getting an appointment at MD Anderson in Houston. When I’d been diagnosed the first time with kidney cancer, through all my research, I had compiled an extensive list of the best programs and hospitals. I went straight back to that list and MD Anderson was at the top. But they wanted a thousand-dollar deposit in order to secure a slot on their schedule. I didn’t have a thousand dollars sitting around. But by January they would be in my insurance network. We would just have to wait.

A few days after surgery, I was headed to Orlando for a job interview. (You can fill a guy with cancer, but you can’t change his stripes! I was still open to pursuing different opportunities for work, always hoping to secure the best possible future for Lissa and Emma no matter what happened to me.) I sat in my seat, waiting for the plane to take off, wanting to quell the thoughts racing in my mind. I shifted in my seat, stretching my legs. I’d brought a book, but it wasn’t capturing my attention. I looked through the magazines in the pocket of the seat in front of me, found the Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine, and started flipping through it.

An article caught my attention. It was titled “The Everyday Action Hero.” Of course, being the Star Wars geek that I am, I was interested. I started reading. And started crying.

It was the story of Alex Sheen, a young man who had launched a social movement about the power of keeping a promise after the death of his father. Because I Said I Would ( encouraged people to follow through on their intentions. The one thing Alex remembered about his dad was that he always kept his promises. No matter what. He was a man of his word. Alex realized how little that commitment was valued in our quick-to-move-on society. He wanted to refocus people, and himself, on doing what we say we will do. He created small business cards that he would mail out to people who wanted to make a promise. At the bottom of the blank card, it simply read “because I said I would.” People would write their commitment at the top, take a photo of the card, and post it online.

Some of the promises were little. Some of them were huge.

Obviously, I was in a fragile space. Facing another diagnosis that looked grim at best. Facing the fact that the doctor had said patients like me had about an 8 percent five-year survival rate. Emma would graduate high school in four-and-a-half years. There was a very good chance I wouldn’t be there to write a Napkin Note for Emma every day until she graduated from high school.

I knew that there was an implied promise to Emma that I’d always pack her lunch and write a Napkin Note for her. But that possibility seemed to be slipping away. What was I going to do?

There was so little I could control in this battle. I didn’t understand why I was having to continue to fight when many men reached their seventies without any significant health issues. They got to watch their kids not only graduate from high school but also graduate from college, get jobs, get married.

But making sure Emma always had a Napkin Note? That was something I could control.

I vowed right then and there, in seat 34B, that I would write out as many Napkin Notes as I needed to in order for her to have one every school day until she graduated. I quickly estimated how many Napkin Notes I would need to last through graduation: 826. Eight hundred twenty-six notes to write to be able to fulfill this promise to my daughter.

Once I landed, before I even checked into my hotel, I emailed Alex, told him how the article had inspired me and the promise I was going to make. A few days later, he actually responded. He was inspired by my commitment to Emma and the Napkin Notes. I was shocked. Alex’s mission was big. He was doing great things. I was just a dad with cancer writing out Napkin Notes to his young daughter.

Coming in contact with Alex and his mission did something for me. It helped me focus. Rather than focus on the grim prognosis I had just received, it made me focus on what I was going to leave behind. And, by golly, I was going to give my girl every piece of advice she may need in life.

Everyday Action Hero is an excerpt from Garth’s book. (HarperOne, 2014)
Everyday Action Hero is an excerpt from Garth’s book. (HarperOne, 2014)
Glen Allen dad Garth Callaghan has been writing napkin notes for his daughter, Emma, since she was a small child. Diagnosed with cancer four times, Garth has been given an eight percent chance to see Emma graduate from high school. Catch up with Garth at Napkin Notes Dad.
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