Childhood's End

Shanel Zunic Had To Grow Up A Lot Faster Than A Kid Should.

By Tom Danehy

WHILE THE LAW and society apply arbitrary numbers to confer the status of legal adulthood on people, it's obvious that such a system is neither fair nor particularly accurate. In this day and age of selfish parents and neglected kids, adulthood is an elusive concept. Many kids are pretty much born adults, while some people in their 30s and 40s are dodging adulthood as though it were a process server coming to collect all their fun.

Then there are those who have adulthood thrust upon them. Such is the case with Shanel Zunic, who can trace her adulthood to the day, hour and minute. It was April 6, 1998, the day she turned 17. And the day she found out about her mother's cancer.

Danehy Shanel was spending her 17th birthday in Mexicali, Baja California. It was the start of Spring Break, and instead of heading for the beach, she was in Mexico with a group from her Casas Adobes Baptist Church.

A lot of things changed that day. Life had been pretty good up to that point. She was a good student, an outstanding athlete and a popular kid. She was active in her church, and she loved her parents. About the biggest adversity she had faced to that point was convincing people that she belonged on a basketball court.

Petite (an understatement) and pretty (yet another one), Shanel had that mixed-heritage look that could easily have led to a modeling career, if only models came in that size. A giant on the court, off it she would have needed a pair of industrial-strength high heels to achieve average height.

As a point guard equally adept at scoring, passing and handling the ball, she led her 1997-98 Canyon Del Oro team to the 5A-South championship and into the state playoffs. On a team with several good players and in a conference liberally sprinkled with several others, she was clearly the outstanding player in the 5A-South that year.

Throughout that season, as CDO took two of three games from Salpointe, swept up-and-coming Amphi, and eventually wrested the conference crown from defending champion Sierra Vista Buena, Shanel sparkled.

Her dad, a colonel in the Air Force, was stationed in the Pacific and found the commute to see her play a bit much. So it was Shanel and mom Rena, partners sublime.

Rena's cancer was pernicious and vile. Doctors fought it vigorously, but not with high hopes.

When Rena attended one of her daughter's fall league games in September, she looked frail. She walked slowly and needed an umbrella to keep the deadly sun off her.

A couple weeks later, in the same league, Shanel collapsed on the court and had to be hospitalized. When asked about it later, she muttered something about playing on an empty stomach and then taking some Advil for a pain. She wouldn't admit to the stress, nor would she give in to it.

While most seniors are worrying about Prom dates and senior pictures, Shanel had to make sure that her mother was making appointments and eating right. Plus, there was the matter of defending the conference title with a team which had been hit hard by graduation and defections by some players to other schools or to other sports at CDO.

Given her stats during her junior year, she should have been a lock for a basketball scholarship somewhere. But an awful lot of college coaches are height snobs. All too often, they overlook winning and are unable to measure heart.

Shanel carried her team farther than most thought she could. The Dorados split with tough Salpointe and Tucson High, but two losses to eventual champion Amphi dropped CDO to third place in the final standings.

In the second of those two losses to Amphi, Shanel went for a loose ball and was accidentally kneed in the head. As she lay on the floor, dazed and woozy, her mother slowly made her way out of the stands, assisted first by friends and then by an Amphi coach. Her concern was completely focused on Shanel.

Later that night, I asked Rena Zunic how she was doing. As always, she smiled, praised God, and said in a wispy voice, "I've been better, but I'm still fighting."

Knowing full well that her cancer had spread into her shoulder and her brain, she spoke hopefully of her goal of watching Shanel graduate.

Shanel graduated this past Monday, just four days after her mother's funeral.

The last few weeks were the worst. Rena needed almost constant care. Shanel would hurry home from school to bathe and feed her mother. There was great love then, and pain. Always the pain.

A couple basketball scholarship prospects fell through; she's probably going to end up at a small Bible college in San Diego. What she does know is that the sweetness that was her mother is gone, and with it the strength.

She turned 18 a few weeks ago, that first artificial level of adult status. But it didn't matter. Life had ratcheted her into adulthood a year earlier, taking away any chance she had of spending her senior year in adolescent bliss.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a deadbeat dad, well into his 30s, obviously terrified of adult responsibility. And now about a great kid who acted more responsibly than most of us will in a lifetime.

I'll never understand why Jimmy Carter was ridiculed when he said that life was unfair. It was the understatement of all time. TW

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