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North Stonington - Emily Zinz, who was diagnosed with ocular melanoma shortly after turning 15, told her mother she had three goals: to meet the cast members of A&E's "Duck Dynasty," attend prom and graduate from high school.
The fall of her senior year, an administrator at Wheeler High School arranged a train trip to New York City, where Emily and her family met the TV show's bearded, camo-wearing cast and attended the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In the spring, Emily put on a royal blue dress accented with rhinestones, got her hair and makeup done and hopped in a limo with her girlfriends to attend prom.
Last Thursday, she received her high school diploma. The following Sunday, she died.
"When she met her last goal, she was done," said Emily's mother, Melissa Zinz.
During high school, Emily lost sight in one of her eyes and "endured more than most people endure in their lifetimes," Zinz said.
She said her daughter "fought bravely and like a warrior" as the cancer metastasized to her organs. By the end, the 17-year-old was in pain, said Zinz, but tried not to show it.
"She's just a courageous young lady. She inspired everybody at school," said North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero.
Zinz's assessment that her daughter was "a ray of sunshine" who was always selfless and upbeat was shared by others who knew the young woman.
"I think she knew what was coming, but she was almost more concerned about everyone else," said Wheeler Interim Principal Donald Macrino. "She was always smiling even if she didn't feel well."
Emily's next-door neighbor and "second mama," Ashley Turano, said the teenager dealt with her disease "with grace" and was more concerned about how the people around her were coping.
The family held a graduation party for Emily on Saturday, she said. During the event, Emily wanted to make sure her illness didn't ruin anyone's time, said Turano, who tearfully added that it would be impossible for Emily to ruin anybody's day.
On Monday, said Turano, family and friends were huddled together at the Zinz house trading stories about the girl they called "Em" and "getting through it second by second."
Turano became emotional as she recalled Emily's graduation, which she attended along with other members of Emily's "tribe" in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Emily's Support Squad." Turano had the shirts made in January for a benefit for Emily.
Turano said she and Emily enjoyed watching "Duck Dynasty" and shopping together. She remembers Emily as a young woman who would sing in the car and do silly things to make people smile.
Emily had hoped to go to school to be a certified nursing assistant, said Turano, and "give back to the medical community what they gave to her."
She said Emily also babysat her children, ages 7 and 8, and was like a big sister to them. Emily had two siblings of her own - Alex, a twin brother who recently graduated from Grasso Tech, and a 21-year-old sister, Jessica Bachinski.
But in the end, reciting adjectives and wish lists and relationships just couldn't capture the girl Turano knew.
"She was just Em," she said.
The Zinz family is in the process of setting up an award fund for a Wheeler High School graduate in Emily's memory. The award will go to a senior who has persevered through a major struggle. The award winner will receive cash as opposed to a scholarship because "not all children decide to go to college after graduation, or want to go to college after graduation," said Melissa Zinz. "Emily was one of my children that was going to go on to learn a trade."
Donations can be made to Emily's Ray of Sunshine Award at the Chelsea Groton Bank in North Stonington.