How should a 21st birthday be celebrated? Especially if it’s a person’s “golden birthday”?

I Googled “21st birthday celebration ideas.” Each site I looked at involved alcohol, which is predictable since across America 21 is the legal drinking age.

People asked me how I planned to celebrate my daughter’s golden 21st birthday, which would have been Monday. I didn’t have a definite answer for them, except that I decided to take the day off from work.

A couple of months ago, I began planning. Various ideas surfaced but none were cemented because, after all, I was certain she would plan her own celebration and allow me (along with some family members) only a little part of it. I began thinking of gifts and ways to present them (she loved Easter egg hunts; maybe hide 21 gifts?). She was a tutor. Her business card displayed three owls. When I saw an owl coffee mug (which she would probably use as a pencil/pen holder), I purchased it as the first of her gifts. My daughter mentioned ideas of how she might celebrate, but then said: “I’m going to work on my birthday [at a restaurant], and celebrate at a different time. It’ll feel good to tell [patrons] that it’s my birthday.”

When she went missing, a Facebook page created for her climbed to over 6,000 followers. Her story made headlines for a week, ending with her body being found in a ditch in a remote farmland area. Less than a week later, nearly 1,000 people attended her memorial service. Last weekend, we held a private party in her honor that was attended by neighbors she grew up with, friends she graduated from high school with, kids she tutored, several who knew her through chess, her godparents, people who worked with her at two different restaurants and those who knew her because as a little girl she pestered them when they’d come to visit her brothers.

There are various communities grieving with me. I sense their loss. A chess community. A university community. A school district. Neighbors, friends, family.

The law enforcement and criminal justice systems give us no meaningful answers. We know that the court — because he “has no money, none whatsoever” and he “served an absolute ton of time from 2003 all the way up to just recently. He is no longer on any parole or probation or otherwise under the jurisdiction of the Court or the Department of Corrections at this point” (quoted from court transcript) — released him on $2,500 (10 percent of $25,000). Originally, the prosecutor had asked for bail to be set at $100,000 without conditions or $75,000 with conditions.

As a family, we’re enraged that this is a courtroom norm — no serious discussion of the safety of the community at large; just another hearing. How many cases did that judge hear that day? The judge is let off the hook by a law professor from the University of St. Thomas. An article in the Star Tribune quoted him:

“There would be an explosion in our jails if judges set bail based on what might happen … Every defendant poses a risk. With 20/20 hindsight, to say this risk was realized, it’s heartbreaking. But that doesn’t make it effective to deny bail to everyone who is a risk.”

With actions and philosophies like this so ingrained in the law enforcement and political systems, it doesn’t seem plausible that change can occur. My daughter suggested in her writings that the world can’t be saved, but it can be enhanced. One way enhancement can occur is to continue doing what my daughter’s friends remember that she did: encourage people, feed the homeless, make your world a better place.

By now, you’ve figured out that my daughter was Anarae Schunk. Her golden 21st birthday was Monday and I’m reflecting on the past month, as well as on the way I knew her during the 20 years she was gifted to me.

How would you celebrate if you were in the same circumstance?


Mariana Schunk lives in Burnsville.