Final Thoughts

Always his little girl

The photo momentarily stunned me. There she was on the front page of the Star Tribune earlier this year, a little Asian girl carrying an American flag during an immigration ceremony. She had become an American citizen.

"Looks just like Katharine," I mumbled to myself as I nonchalantly dropped the paper on the table and walked away.

But I couldn’t put the photo out of my mind. I wandered into the conference room no less than a dozen times to look at that photo. I was mesmerized. My mind kept going back to a federal courtroom many years ago when a little Korean girl carrying an American flag stood next to the judge and led the audience in saying "The Pledge of Allegiance."

Not just any little girl. My little girl.

Now that little girl is a young woman about to graduate from high school, and I find myself awash in memories that won’t go away, that seem stronger every time I recall them, that leave me both smiling and choked up, my eyes filling with tears.

Where did all those years go? I ask myself over and over. It’s hard to fathom that my only daughter soon will leave home for college. Oh, we’ll stay close — by pager (she has one), by cell phone (she wants one) and by computer (she’ll get one for graduation). She promises to drop me notes over the Internet and says we’ll have to talk in a "chat room."

But it won’t be the same as shaking her out of her favorite reclining chair, where she likes to fall asleep, and coaxing her to go to bed. Or catching her look of exasperation as I fumble in the kitchen, incapable even of boiling noodles. Or seeing that glint in her eyes and knowing that she is about to ask for something ... and I won’t be able to say no.

Katharine Lee-Eun Hennes was born Dec. 27, 1982, in a village near Seoul. Her mother died after childbirth and her father had to give her up for adoption. With one biological son already in tow (and another would follow later), we decided to adopt our second child.

I wrote a newspaper column about that experience, and dug it up recently to help shake the cobwebs from the day. I recalled the fascinating process of international adoption, filled with paperwork, red tape and interminable waiting and wondering. Then one day the phone call came: Be at the airport on Thursday for the 5:25 p.m. Northwest Airlines flight from Seoul.

Scores of friends and members of the adopting families waited in the boarding area. Six social workers, one assigned to each family, boarded the plane after the regular passengers got off. The baby carried off by our social worker was ours. "Katharine was, all personal bias aside, the finest-looking baby of the bunch," I wrote at the time. I was awestruck, "too numb to be nervous and too dazed to do anything but squeeze her and tell her that I already loved her in a way that I never had loved, or ever would love, anybody else."

That was nearly 18 years ago. I shudder when I think of all that time gone by, filled with warm thoughts of the girl I call Kate the Great. Watching her pass out cigars at my newsroom the day after her arrival. Hitting up my parents and siblings for tips one holiday as she delivered cocktails. Playing poker and Hearts with her brothers and me on Friday nights before hitting Burger King for 1 a.m. Whoppers. Cruising the neighborhood at 14 — dad riding shotgun and keeping an eye out for cops, she barely big enough to look over the steering wheel. Buying her first car, which turned out to be a lemon, but finding a reliable one the second time.

And always celebrating what came to be known as Got Her Day. Every Sept. 7 we would gather at a favorite Korean restaurant to eat beef bulgogi and tell stories about what we remembered of her arrival. They never got old.

Through all of this, I always thought of Katharine as my little girl, age be damned. But that began to change.

We would stay up late on school nights and talk about everything ranging from careers to relationships to why kids drink so much. I come away from those conversations impressed with her maturity, as raw and unrefined as it is at times, and her levelheadedness. She loves to talk, to probe, to push the envelope; she reminds me of the reporter I used to be.

This growing up stuff hit me especially hard one Saturday in January. It was the night of the big father-daughter dinner and dance. I wore a tuxedo, a privilege reserved for dads of seniors. She bought a new dress and shoes. She looked fabulous. So did her friends. As they flitted around the room, another dad turned to me and said, "Hard to believe, isn’t it?"

"Sure is," I replied. "What happened to our little girls?"

"Oh, they’ll always be our little girls," he said.

I thought about his words as Katharine and I danced. She laughed as I clumsily kept step to the junk (rap) they call music. But as things slowed down and we eased into "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton and "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, everything was perfect. I looked around and saw a dance floor jammed with dads holding on to memories that wouldn’t go away, both smiling and choked up, their eyes filling with tears.

My friend was right. She’ll always be my little girl.