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The Gift of Words



I paused before I folded this napkin. I was really hesitant to put anything about death in Emma’s napkin notes these days. I didn’t want her to focus on my mortality. I wanted her to focus on life. On her life. On how to live the best life possible. But this quote from Mark Twain said that. I liked it. I folded it up and put it into her lunch bag.

I was feeling excited today. Dr. Swainey had called with the news that I wasn’t accepted into the drug trial because of my prostate cancer. (Wouldn’t you think because I had two kinds of cancer that I should have been at the top of the list? But alas, I would have thrown off their results.) Bless his heart, Dr. Swainey had found a way to get me the medicine anyway and have my insurance cover some of it. (Without insurance, it would have cost me twelve thousand dollars a month.) I was so thankful to be aggressively going after the cancer, to have found a doctor who was committed to doing everything he could to keep me alive.

I have often been asked about the impact cancer has had on my life. I can’t begin to explain how many aspects of my life it has changed. It has attacked all the major pillars of my life. It has shaken me to my core, and at times, I have felt that I’ve almost lost myself. I can easily say that it’s not just me who has cancer. It’s my whole family. We’ve been on the battlefield for years and will likely never leave this battlefield until the very end of my life.

This might be difficult for you to read. It was difficult for me to say it to myself the first time.

I can’t wish that I never had cancer. I am not glad to have had it. I certainly wish, hope, and pray that I don’t have it tomorrow. But I can’t wish that I never got it.

Cancer has put me on this road. Cancer has led me to focus on what’s important. And if I’m able to help others do that as well, who am I to say that I shouldn’t be dealing with this?

I’m thankful for another reason. It has given me a wake-up call. Most obviously to take stock of my blessings, to tell those I care about that I love them. But also, to prepare. To get things in order. Life insurance. My will. What my wishes are about my funeral.

As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was the town undertaker in Port Leyden, New York, for thirty-four years. Death was a way of living for my family. I grew up knowing that death was a fact of life, something you wanted to avoid, for as long as possible, but if it happened, the Callaghan Funeral Home was there to support the family and try and make the transition as easy as possible.

Yet when my dad died a few months shy of my first cancer diagnosis, it was the first death I truly experienced. My grandparents had all passed away when I was younger, but that was a rite of passage. I had an uncle that passed away a few years before Dad, but I wasn’t super close to him. This was the first time one of my lifelines was gone. My dad was a rock, for me and many people around him. Losing him turned my world upside down.

Needless to say, I was surprised when Dad died. Although he didn’t lead an incredibly healthy lifestyle, I don’t think any of us expected him to die when he did. His doctor thought he might have lung cancer. There were some spots on his lung, and there was reason to believe it could be cancer. Dad was a lifelong smoker. I think he started smoking in elementary school.

Dad had a biopsy to check it out. It went as well as most biopsies go, but he suffered a collapsed lung shortly after. He lapsed into a coma and never woke up.

We had only been on the road home an hour when I got the call. Dad was gone. It was sudden from my perspective. I never got to say good-bye. I didn’t even have the chance to talk to him because of the coma.

I was unprepared for the cascade of emotions I felt during that time. My first thought as we drove back to Port Leyden was, “Who buries the undertaker?” In many cases, it is the son who has gone into the family business. I did not.

We didn’t really prepare for Dad’s death. We should have. For crying out loud, the family business was death! I am unaware of any family conversations surrounding our parents, or what was expected of us after one died. I don’t know if my father had any specific wishes. I know he often said that funerals and their details were for the family that was left. I didn’t know what I wanted for him. We never talked about it.

I was diagnosed with cancer just a few months after my dad’s death. I didn’t really get a chance to fully grieve for myself. My feeling about my dad’s death were over-shadowed by my fears for my own. It is only recently that I realized how deeply I miss my dad. I was in the middle of a radio interview about Napkin Notes when somehow my dad came to mind. “I am a mission-driven father, and my mission is to get to every parent, to inspire them to write to their kids. Whether it’s once a day or once a week, that these parents will make the commitment and write a short note to them. My dad passed away a couple of years ago and…there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to have a note or letter from my dad. At this point, it’s too late.”

There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to have a note or letter from my dad. At this point, it’s too late. I was choked up with emotion suddenly and had to take a few deep breaths to keep talking. This deep sadness overwhelmed me and I realized that, at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about Emma losing her dad, I was thinking about how much it hurt to lose mine.

Later, I took comfort realizing that this was one hurt Emma would not know.

The Gift of Words is an excerpt from Garth’s book. (HarperOne, 2014)
The Gift of Words 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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