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May peace find them all

Published March 31, 2005

The peace of death is bitter for the living. Some will say of Terri Schiavo that her suffering has ended now. But if the experts are to be believed, she did not suffer in the way that we use the word. For it is the mind and not the body that grasps the meaning of thirst, and hunger, and loneliness, and love.

The suffering has not ended for Terri Schiavo's loving parents and siblings, nor will it ever end. Neither will it end for her husband, Michael, as hard as that might be to believe for those who sought the easy answer of casting him as a monster. Neither will it end for many others whose lives had become involved with hers.

It took years for Terri Schiavo to become known as a public person, and years more for her case to wind through the courts. Only in the closing months of her life did she become a national and worldwide figure. But once that happened, hers was a household name, known to presidents and to the Vatican. She was the subject of emergency laws and constitutional showdowns.

Why? Maybe it was because so many people saw in her case the thing that they feared the most for themselves. Our death-denying culture is still learning to cope; many demons lurk in our closet.

For some people, it was the idea of being abandoned, cut off, literally left to die. For others, the fear was precisely the opposite, the dread of being trapped without dignity in a vacant, vegetative prison, not allowed to finish with self-mastery.

On top of that, this was the first full-blown, Internet-age debate over how we die. It filled the 24-hour cable news. Preachers and pundits, experts and fakers, ax-grinders and water-carriers of all varieties had their say and then had it again.

Maybe our lawmakers, now freed from the emotion and the pressure of a ticking clock, should revisit these questions in her name and try to reach a new consensus.

Or maybe not.

Beyond the tragedy of Terri Schiavo's life and death, the greatest disappointment in this case was the shallow and camera-grabbing behavior of the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress. We are entitled to be governed by sober adults. Instead, both institutions rushed in with quickly constructed "laws" that were not laws at all, but grabs of power.

The courts did their job.

Circuit Judge George Greer of Pinellas County was the judge who ruled that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to be kept alive. He considered each new motion, but he was never intimidated or cowed into ruling on the basis of anything other than the law. He could have stepped aside but did not. He is under death threat.

But Greer was only one of many judges. From his courtroom, the case went time and again up to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland and the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. It went to federal court, to district judges in Tampa, to appeals judges in Atlanta, and finally, to the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

All of these judges, whether appointed by Democrats, or appointed by Republicans such as Gov. Jeb Bush on the state level, and presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush on the federal level, ruled in the way that they concluded the law and the Constitution required.

Some of the same people who complain about "activist judges" wanted the courts to grab power here. Tom DeLay, the powerful congressman who took up the case for his own ends, darkly threatened that the Supreme Court now "will have some serious questions to answer about its silence and arbitrary interpretation of federalism."

Yet in the end, the vast majority of Americans believed that the government had gone too far and that we have the right to make these decisions for ourselves.

That is Terri Schiavo's public legacy.

As for her private legacy, as for the lives she changed and the pain of those now left behind - may it fade now from the television screens and the newspaper pages, may their suffering be made gentle with time, may each of them find what peace there is to find in this world. May they make the rest of their journey in the way that all of us should make it, not in denial of an inevitable and universal fate, but with joy and gratitude and awe that we have lived at all.

[Last modified March 31, 2005, 17:03:41]

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