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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.

Terri Schindler and Michael Schiavo on their wedding day, in 1984. (Family Photo via Zuma Press)

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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 did.

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 consciousness.

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 neurological tics.

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?

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