[Paleopsych] WP: Terri Schiavo's Unstudied Life
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Sun Mar 27 18:54:44 UTC 2005
Terri Schiavo's Unstudied Life
The Woman Who Is Now a Symbol And a Cause Hated the Spotlight
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page C01
She was a girl who laughed easily at her uncle's lame jokes. A girl so
innocent that she wrote to John Denver, asking him to come sing at her
wedding, who went to Disney World for her honeymoon and believed that
a good life meant that one day she'd be able to vacation there every
year with her kids.
She was a girl who loved animals and worshiped cute television stars,
paying homage to heartthrobs Starsky and Hutch by naming two gerbils
after them. She daydreamed about working for a veterinarian when she
grew up, or maybe just being a dog groomer.
She was a shy girl, always overweight as a child, with big glasses,
but shiny hair and perfect skin and a tendency to collapse into
fifth-grade giggles. Her first car -- a black-and-gold Trans Am with a
T-top roof -- exuded the flash and confidence that she herself never
She was a girl who married the first man she ever kissed.
"She was quiet," says childhood friend Sue Pickwell, who was a
bridesmaid the day Terri Schindler married Michael Schiavo. "She
didn't like the limelight. How ironic is that?"
Terri Schiavo is everywhere. There are pictures of her on the front
pages of newspapers, on the Internet, on every news network on TV. A
four-year-old videotape of Terri with her mother is played over and
over and over again.
The fight over her life -- and death -- is being played out, in this
Easter week, as a uniquely American Passion play. Congress passed
emergency legislation. The president signed it in the middle of the
night, in his pajamas, after being awakened. There are picketers,
prayer services, angry invective, impassioned appeals. The Vatican has
weighed in. The Supreme Court has refused to do so.
For seven years now, Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers -- primarily,
Terri's parents, Bob and Mary -- have been locked in a grueling war, a
war over money, over control, and, in the end, over Terri's future.
Schiavo wants his wife to be allowed to die. That, he says, was her
wish. The Schindlers want someone -- the government, the courts,
anyone with any possible authority in this situation -- to restore the
feeding tube that was removed, by court order, last Friday. They want
their daughter, in whatever state she is, to live.
It has been an extraordinary situation, marked by extraordinary
efforts and circumstances that have dominated the national
And all of it, her friends and family say, is about a truly ordinary
girl with simple dreams and an uncomplicated life.
Who is Terri Schiavo?
Again and again, the courts recognize that she is a woman who has been
in a "persistent vegetative state" since the day she suffered heart
failure 15 years ago. She cannot communicate, she is not cognizant of
what is happening around her, her movements are nothing more than
The Schindlers argue -- thus far unsuccessfully in courts of law --
that she still gets pleasure from seeing her family, that she might
have a chance at some semblance of recovery, that she is still a real
person somewhere inside the body she cannot control.
But who was Terri Schiavo?
That is another question altogether.
Teresa Marie Schindler had a purple-and-white bedroom in her family's
home in the Philadelphia suburbs. White wicker furniture. Endless
stuffed animals. Posters of '70s television stars; she liked David
Cassidy more than Shaun. Her brother, Bobby, was two years younger,
her sister Suzanne two years younger than that.
Her first friend was Diane Meyer. Her dad had been pals with Terri's
dad forever. The girls became friends at age 2 and did family
celebrations together, took annual summer vacation trips to the same
hotels on the Jersey shore. Diane's little brother, Stephen, was best
friends with Bobby. The boys tortured the girls regularly, in that
little-brother way. Water pistol attacks. Food fights. Obnoxious
public behavior designed to embarrass. That made Terri nuts. She hated
to stand out.
"To those who knew her -- her friends, her family -- she was
vivacious, outgoing, funny," Meyer says. "But in a crowd, she was the
She never sought out friends, but welcomed them eagerly if they made
an overture. It was in her seventh-grade classroom that she first
bonded with Pickwell; they both broke up laughing over something silly
that was said.
"I don't remember what it was," Pickwell says, "but everything's funny
in seventh grade, I guess."
They became fast friends. There was a sleepover almost every weekend.
Terri went on Pickwell family outings and vice versa.
"There was nothing extraordinary," Pickwell says. "No trying to change
the world type of thing. It was your typical teenagers, watching
movies, eating junk food, that kind of thing."
They were mall rats. The day Pickwell got her driver's license, that's
the first place they went. It was, in their vocabulary, huge. Once
Terri got her license, she and Meyer -- who went to a different school
-- started hanging out frequently. They watched sappy TV movies,
especially love stories and anything adapted from romance novelist
Danielle Steel, Terri's favorite author. They went to the Magic Pan
Terri's weight reached more than 200 pounds, and late in her senior
year, she went on the NutriSystem diet and lost more than 50 pounds.
She continued to live at home and enrolled in Bucks County Community
College. On weekends, she took her Trans Am on road trips to visit
Meyer, who went away to college at the University of Scranton. Meyer
was a sorority sister at Gamma Phi Beta. Terri, she says, was like an
honorary sorority member. She'd go to the parties, hang out, make
"I don't know if it was the weight loss or maturity or all of it
combined, but she started to put herself out there a little bit more,"
Meyer says. "And once she did, she got more success in social
situations. Terri is the kind of person, you meet her, you love her."
A few months later, Terri met a guy at school. His name was Michael
"Michael was her first everything."
Pickwell is keeping her voice neutral. She disagrees vehemently with
the decisions Michael has made about Terri's future. But that is now.
This was then.
She remembers how excited Terri was. How she lit up. Michael was the
first boy who ever really looked at Terri. The first boy to ask her on
"I remember she called me, and she asked me to come home for the
weekend," Meyer said. "She wanted me to be there."
The first date was dinner, a movie, and that first-ever kiss. On the
second date, Terri took Schiavo to meet Pickwell and her family.
Pulling aside Pickwell and her big sister, Terri confided that Michael
wanted to marry her.
"What? Are you crazy?" Pickwell remembers telling her then.
But Terri was giddy with excitement. "Everything happened so fast and
it was such a good feeling for her," Pickwell says. "He was
good-looking and it felt good to have someone pay attention to her. I
think she was overwhelmed."
In one of his rare interviews, Michael Schiavo talked about how hard
he fell for her. "She had this presence, this aura, that just
attracted you," he told CNN. "She was shy and outgoing at the same
He introduced her to his big, boisterous family -- Michael is the
youngest of five sons -- at a family birthday party. She hung back at
first, but surprised the brothers by engaging in their games of
sibling grief. All those years of water fights. All those years of
"She fit right in," says Scott Schiavo, one of Michael's brothers.
"Mike was always a happy kid, but when he met Terri he just perked up
Terri and Michael were engaged relatively quickly, and Terri began
making plans for an elaborate wedding at Our Lady of Good Counsel, the
Catholic parish the Schindler family attended. She was still a month
shy of her 21st birthday when the big day came. In that interview with
CNN, Michael Schiavo said when he first saw Terri come down the aisle,
he thought she was "just gorgeous. All I saw was this big smile."
Their first dance was to "Tonight I Celebrate My Love," by Peabo
Bryson and Roberta Flack.
After the wedding, Terri drifted apart from her close girlfriends. She
and Meyer had a falling-out and never really spoke again. Terri
remained friends with Pickwell, but, Pickwell says, "they were
newlyweds. You wanted to give them space."
Meanwhile, Terri was folded into the big, tight-knit Schiavo family.
Karen Schiavo, a sister-in-law, says that she instantly became one of
them, and that Michael and Terri were "deeply in love."
A few years later, the Schindlers decided to move to Florida, and
Michael and Terri followed. She got an office job at an insurance
company, he went to work managing a restaurant. Their hours were
opposite -- Terri on days, Michael on nights -- so they didn't see a
lot of each other.
At work, Terri made friends with some co-workers, including Jackie
Rhodes. They went shopping together. Visited Terri's grandmother at a
nearby nursing home. Went swimming at the pool where the Schindlers
had their condo. Terri loved watching the dolphins in the Intracoastal
She also started to lose more weight. If she had developed an eating
disorder -- medical experts have said that complications from bulimia
may have led to her heart failure -- she hid it well. Scott Schiavo
remembers sitting next to her when the couple came back to
Pennsylvania for a family funeral. Terri was eating a huge plate of
food, but she was thinner than ever.
"I asked her how she could eat like that and still be so thin," Scott
remembers. "She laughed and said she must just have a good
By 1989, Rhodes says, Terri and Michael were having marital problems.
The Schindlers have suggested the same in recent years. The Schiavos
dispute that claim. Still, both Rhodes and Michael Schiavo (in an
interview with CNN) say that the couple had been trying to conceive a
child. Terri went to see a gynecologist to address problems with an
irregular menstrual cycle.
The last time she spoke to Terri, Rhodes says, she had just gone to
get her hair done. Terri was toying with going back to her natural
color, so Rhodes called that Saturday to ask what she had decided.
Terri, Rhodes says, was in tears; she and Michael had had a fight over
the cost of the salon visit.
Early the next morning, in February 1990, Terri collapsed in the
hallway in her house. Michael heard her fall, found her there. She was
26 years old, weighed 110 pounds and was in heart failure because of a
severe potassium imbalance.
Inside Woodside Hospice, Michael Schiavo likes to hold his wife's
hand, according to his brother Scott. Today will be the seventh day
Terri Schiavo has gone without the feeding tube that sustained her.
Her husband sits vigil with her most of the day, his brothers Brian
and Bill on hand to support him. Michael adjusts Terri's positions,
moves her, makes sure there will be no bedsores. And he talks to her
-- talks to her the way one talks to the headstone of a loved one at
"You know how that is?" says Scott, who calls his brother's cell phone
multiple times a day for updates. "How you do it because it makes you
feel better, even though you know they can't hear anything you say?"
The Schiavos leave the room when the Schindlers come to visit. They,
too, take turns trying to make Terri comfortable. They stroke her
hands, kiss her hair. And they, too, talk to her.
"We talk to her about getting her out and taking her to lunch," says
Mike Tammaro, her uncle. "We tell her we're working hard to take her
to lunch. The other night, we said, 'We're taking you out to breakfast
tomorrow, Terri.' "
The family's vigil, Tammaro says, is tense and tearful. They watch
carefully for signs of decline.
"I believe she's hearing some of this," Tammaro says. "I really do. I
don't know how much. I don't know what state her mind is in. It
doesn't matter. We just want her alive and home."
For Michael, Scott Schiavo says, the days are filled with sadness and
frustration and anger at the politicians and their attempts to
intervene in what he considers a very personal decision. Michael,
Scott says, wanted this to be a private moment.
The Schiavos are grieving, too, he says. He says Terri wasn't a
sister-in-law to him, she was a sister. He breaks down.
"It's so sad that they've turned this wonderful person into a
sideshow," Scott says, his voice shaking. "Into a media circus. It's
such a shame. It really is. The one that's hurt the most here is
Terri. Her memory. They're taking away whatever dignity she had left.
They're taking it away. And it really stinks."
And so they take turns in the room, two sets of family, each with
their own version of who Terri Schiavo is now.
Perhaps there will be some last-minute intervention. More likely, her
life is coming to an end. In her hospice room, she is surrounded by
stuffed animals. The world has fast-forwarded 15 years. Terri Schiavo
is 41 years old. But who she was -- a shy little girl, a woman still
able to find joy in a simple stuffed bunny -- will forever be
suspended in time.
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