Devotion sustained them, inspired others

Published March 31, 2005

At night, when it was quiet, all Mary Schindler could see was her daughter's face, dying, starving.

"Please let my daughter live," she begged after Terri's feeding tube was removed.

Bob and Mary Schindler have been, in many ways, the emotional heart of their daughter's story. Who could not be moved by the parents' desire to save their child, no matter what?

Their entreaties inspired hundreds of supporters to travel by cars, buses and planes, to march, chant and pray outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Terri lived. They had to do something .

The Schindlers knew what some doctors said, that Terri's mind was empty, that she was already gone.

They also believed that Terri laughed, cried and moaned. That she sometimes seemed to smile when her mother bent down and said, "Mommy's here." That she seemed to turn her head toward sunlight, to groan when her father played opera music in her ears.

They believed Terri was still in there.

When she sobbed, her mother hurt inside. It was almost like a plea, Mary Schindler said: "Help me, Mommy, help me."

The Schindlers' beliefs tugged at millions across the nation. Doctors get it wrong sometimes. But mothers? Mothers know, some thought.

They fought their son-in-law every step of the way. They won the support of many of the country's power brokers, all the way up to the president.

The Schindlers themselves are regular folks, a middle-class, Catholic family who raised three children, Terri, Bobby and Suzanne, in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. Bob Schindler, now 67, ran a business selling industrial supplies, among other things. Mary Schindler, 64, stayed home with the children, volunteering at their Catholic school.

They followed their oldest daughter, Terri, and her new husband, Michael Schiavo, to Florida in 1986.

Four years later, Terri collapsed.

The Schindlers and Schiavo remained close during the first few years, then a fight over money and Terri's care tore them apart.

It was almost too much for Bob Schindler to see his brown-eyed girl, still in her 20s, lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak or move. The former altar boy, who had contemplated becoming a priest, doubted for the first time whether God was real.

Mary Schindler learned to work her daughter's arms and legs, to transfer her from the bed to a wheelchair. She visited her daughter nearly every weekend. She brought pictures and gifts, poinsettias for Easter.

She felt certain that Terri knew she was there.

"Sometimes she laughs a lot," Mary Schindler told a judge in 2000. "She will cry. She just looks at me. She's just - I believe she understands. I believe that she knows that I'm there."

She stroked her daughter's hair, rubbed her face, kissed her cheek.

If her daughter's heart stopped beating, Mary Schindler wanted her resuscitated. If there was a new therapy, she wanted to try it.

"I just want her to live," Mary Schindler said. "I don't want her to die."

Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455 or jthompson@sptimes.com