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From ordinary girl to international icon

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published March 31, 2005

Before the prayer warriors massed outside her window, before gavels pounded in six courts, before the Vatican issued a statement, before the president signed a midnight law and the Supreme Court turned its head, Terri Schiavo was just an ordinary girl, with two overweight cats, an unglamorous job and a typical American life.

The life she led, the one she chose, never warranted media coverage. When she collapsed on Feb. 25, 1990, and stopped breathing, she had a few close friends, a family who loved her fiercely, and a name no stranger would recognize. She was 26. When she died Thursday (March 31, 2005), she was an international icon, a vessel into which people poured their need for miracles, their convictions about personal liberty, their ideas of democracy and justice and heroes and villains, and their terror of letting go.

Thousands of people spoke on her behalf, even if they mispronounced her name. But only a few had ever heard her voice or stood alone with her in a quiet room. She knew nothing of her fame. She would not have recognized her own face on CNN. She was 26, still. Except she was 41.

She was born Theresa Marie Schindler on Dec. 3, 1963, the first child of Bob and Mary Schindler. She grew up in a four-bedroom colonial on Red Wing Lane in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her family said grace before dinner and had roast beef on Sundays. She was Catholic.

Bob Schindler sold industrial supplies. Mary Schindler stayed home. Terri hardly ever got in trouble, and she kept her room neat. Her gerbils were always getting loose and winding up in the air conditioning unit in the basement.

She had a little brother, Bobby, and a little sister, Suzanne. Bobby once locked her in a suitcase. Another time, he threw a brick at her head.

Terri was chubby, with dark curly hair and thick glasses with heavy frames. She hated her glasses. When her mother took her shopping for school clothes, she cried.

She attended Our Lady of Good Counsel grade school, where she pined for a boy named Vincent Mandez. She would buy his favorite foods so she could trade with him at lunch. "Think of all the money we spent on you-know-who," she later wrote in her friend Sue Pickwell's yearbook. She never told him she liked him.

At Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster, Pa., her only activity was library aide. She dusted and rearranged the books. She and Sue decided to be aides so there would not be blanks next to their names in the yearbook.

Sue sneaked cigarettes from her dad's shirt pocket, and she and Terri smoked them in the woods. They took only the required classes, no extra math. Junior year they had a hard history class and conspired to slack off and annoy the teacher. Summer school was two easy weeks.

The girls at Archbishop Wood wore green polyester jumpers with green knee socks and green saddle shoes. Terri parted her hair in the middle and feathered it on the sides. She didn't date. She didn't go to dances. She didn't go to the prom.

When she graduated in 1981, she weighed 200 pounds.

She tried not to draw attention to herself. She did not start conversations. She had a huge laugh that people remembered. She defended people other people made fun of. She cried over injured animals, real and fictional. When her Labrador retriever, Bucky, collapsed of old age in the driveway, she performed mouth-to-nose resuscitation. He died anyway.

She was always cold and loved the sunshine. She vacationed on the Jersey shore, chasing her friends on the sand, trying to peel their sunburned skin.

She aspired to be skinny and to fall in love. She read Danielle Steele novels. She saw An Officer and a Gentleman four times in one day. She loved Wham!, especially George Michael; she preferred blonds. She loved Starsky and Hutch, especially Paul Michael Glaser; he was an exception to the blond thing. She and her friend Diane Meyer would drive past construction crews in Terri's Trans Am, just looking. They would look at wedding dresses together, just daydreaming.

She wanted a wedding with a horse and carriage. She lost 50 pounds.

Michael Schiavo (pronounced SHY-vo) was in her psychology class her second semester at Bucks County Community College. Michael told his brother Brian that he had heard laughter and had to turn in his seat to see who was laughing like that. As far as anyone knows, he was the first guy to notice her.

Michael was a year older than Terri, a foot taller and blond. When he picked her up for their first date, Bobby Schindler stood on the front lawn and cheered.

Michael was her first kiss. He told her that she was beautiful. Terri fell hard and fast. Michael told his brother Scott, "She's the one, I'm going to get married."

"Lucky you," Scott said. "You found a wonderful girl."

In an interview March 15, Michael remembered what he saw in her. "She was shy until she got to know you," he said. "She was a great person, a hometown girl, you know what I'm saying? She had that little flair about her that you just loved."

Michael proposed after five months. Terri wrote a letter to John Denver, asking him to sing at the wedding. She never heard back.

Her father thought she was too young to get married. The night before the wedding, he sat on her bedroom floor and watched her sleep. He was crying. Terri knew he was there; she told Diane Meyer about it but didn't tell her father.

Terri and Michael were married Nov. 10, 1984, at Our Lady of Good Counsel church, in front of about 250 guests. It was the wedding she had always wanted, except that she refused to wait for warmer weather so she could have the horse and carriage. She wore a size 12 dress and carried white flowers.

They vacationed in St. Petersburg and moved there in 1986. Her parents and brother followed later. They first lived in the Schindlers' vacation condo, then in an apartment on Fourth Street N. They had two cats, Tolly and Shane. Terri fed them too much.

She worked at Prudential Insurance, a company she had started with in Pennsylvania. Michael had a series of restaurant jobs.

Terri dropped to 110 pounds, dyed her hair blond and bought a bikini. She told her friends she was afraid to ever be fat again. Her mother worried she was too thin. Terri liked to dip her french fries in mustard. She drank almost a gallon of iced tea a day. She tried to get pregnant. No luck.

Michael worked nights, so Terri went to clubs with her brother, who lived in the same apartment complex. When guys hit on her, she would giggle, grab his arm and say, "I'm here with my boyfriend."

One night, Michael came home late and found her already in bed, bundled up in sweat pants and a sweat shirt. He woke up later, peeled back the covers to climb out of bed, and heard a thud. Terri had collapsed facedown in the hallway.

It was 10 years before anyone heard of her.

At first, her mother and Michael visited together every day. Her mother worked her arms and legs, moved her from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to bed. Michael took her to California, where doctors implanted a brain stimulator in her head.

She spent part of the early '90s at Sabal Palms nursing facility in Largo. A thin tube ran out of her stomach under her shirt. Every few hours, someone turned her. Every morning, someone washed her, shaved her legs, put on her makeup, her jewelry and her Paloma Picasso perfume.

An aide took her to parks, museums and to Countryside Mall. She had a salon makeover. Her clothes came from the Limited and always matched. Michael took them home and washed them. He combed her hair. On special occasions, he had it curled.

On Valentine's Day 1993, her husband brought her two dozen roses. Her parents arrived later. Her husband and father argued at her bedside.

After that, her husband and parents never visited at the same time.

She moved from one facility to another. Her mother decorated her room for holidays. After a while, Terri didn't wear perfume or makeup anymore. She wore house dresses and socks. Someone cut her hair short. She gained weight. She never had a bedsore. She lost her left little toe to a bone infection.

She never spoke. Never walked. Her parents measured success in eye contact and sounds. Her eyes opened and closed, darted around, rolled back in her head. Her head turned left and right. Her mouth opened and closed. She seemed to cry. She moaned. Sometimes she snored. Her hands curled into fists, tighter, tighter.

Nurses laid her in the bed, propped her in a chair, turned her. The light went off at night, came on in the morning.

Maybe it was dark in there, all those years. Maybe it was silent.

Maybe she glimpsed a moving balloon. Maybe she recognized her mother's hands or her father's voice: "Listen to me. You see the balloon? You see Mickey?"

Doctors leaned over her, "Open your eyes."

Her eyes opened. Maybe she saw nothing.

A court-appointed guardian, Jay Wolfson, visited her in 2003. He played Elton John for her, stroked her hair and looked hard into her eyes. "Help me, Terri," he said.

Sometimes, outside the window, there was noise. There were hymns and Hail Marys, prayers and pleadings, there were candles, roses, a plastic Jesus big as life, tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, people speaking in tongues, crying, throwing salt, wearing headsets, carrying flags, holding signs, playing trumpet, falling to the ground, shouting into bullhorns, pushing children in wheelchairs. There were friars in robes and sandals, clergy in white collars, police, swarms of reporters, cameras, gawkers, believers, would-be saviors carrying water.

"Terri Shy-vo"

"Terri Shee-eye-vo"

All for her.

On March 18, a priest sprinkled holy water on her. A doctor removed her feeding tube and closed the wound. Someone pulled a sheet over her to keep her warm. A radio played.

She missed two wars and two presidents. She missed CD burners, cell phones and low-rise jeans. She missed stirrup pants going out of style. She missed the Starsky and Hutch movie. She missed the news that George Michael is gay and that John Denver is dead.

She missed her sister's remarriage. She missed teasing Brian Schiavo about his wedding, which the family suspected would never happen. She missed the birth of a niece and nephew. She missed the deaths of her grandmother, Michael's parents and her cats.

She missed eight years of litigation, decisions by 19 state judges, 30,000 pages of court documents, votes in the Florida Legislature and Congress, and the results of the CNN/Gallup poll.

She missed the Internet, where she has her own Web site; where, in blogs and message boards, her family is exalted and vilified; where, in video, she raises her eyebrows and moans and maybe laughs. Her mother still holds her face in her hands. And thousands of people she has never met have something to say about it.

She missed nearly everything that is recognizable to the outside world as her life.

She is survived by her husband, Michael Schiavo; her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler; her brother, Bobby Schindler Jr.; and her sister, Suzanne Vitadamo.

Times staff writers Vanessa Gezari, David Karp and William R. Levesque contributed to this report. Other information came from court transcripts, news reports and interviews with Bobby Schindler Jr., Diane Meyer, Sue Pickwell, Brian Schiavo, Scott Schiavo, Terri Schiavo's former nurse Gloria Centonze and University of South Florida professor Jay Wolfson.

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