Buckets of tears

The St. Petersburg Times' detailed report on Terri Schiavo's final hours is elegant and rigorously balanced. The article, which appears under a five-person byline, is a moving account of the grief felt by Michael Schiavo and his brother, by Terri's siblings and parents and by the protesters who have demonstrated outside the Pinellas Park hospice. Even amid the conflicts between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers, we see two families saying goodbye with universally familiar rites of touch, storytelling and prayer:

In an interview late Thursday, Brian Schiavo said he and Michael had stayed up all night, sitting with Terri the entire time except when the Schindlers came in. As the night wore on, Brian said, he and Michael talked to Terri and rubbed her arms and legs, which were cold and mottled. They also traded stories about the old days with the girl they used to know.

Brian told the one about the time when Michael and Terri were dating and Brian went into the dry cleaner where she worked. He took off his pants and handed them to her. Said he'd wait. Brian stood there in his white briefs while Terri ran to the back, screaming and cracking up.

They told the one about Brian and Michael spoofing a synchronized swimming routine in the pool, and Terri laughing her huge, infectious laugh.

. . . Outside the hospice, Bobby Schindler was pleading with the police officer for another visit. The request reached Michael Schiavo. An officer knocked on the door of Terri's room and said Bobby wanted to see her. Michael and Brian, groggy, got themselves together and said okay, then went to another hospice room down the hall where they'd been living for days.

Just after 7:30 a.m., Bobby Schindler and his sister Suzanne -- accompanied by a priest, Father Frank Pavone -- were led to Terri's bedside. They stayed in the room for approximately an hour and a half.

According to Pavone, Terri could not focus her eyes and was breathing with difficulty. The hospice workers, he said, told him and the Schindler siblings that Terri wouldn't make it through another day.

Pavone said they prayed over Terri, held her hand, stroked her hair. He sang hymns in Latin, including Hail Holy Queen, a chanted version of Ave Maria and Veni Creator Spiritus. They recited the rosary and delivered the chaplet of divine mercy, a series of prayers asking God's mercy.

"For the sake of his sorrowful passion," they said, "have mercy on us and on the whole world."

The Times' restrained description of Terri's dying moments, and the grief that followed, shows us the shared humanity in these battling families:

Michael Schiavo went to his wife and cradled her. Terri lay on her left side, wearing a pale nightgown. The covers were pulled over her. She had stuffed animals under her arms. Four hospice workers in the room were crying.

Michael held his wife and talked to her. Brian stood next to Michael, massaging his back.

"Michael," he said, "it's going to be all right."

Almost immediately, Terri stopped breathing.

"We were there about 60 seconds," Brian said, "and she was gone."

The lawyers and nurses left Michael and Brian alone with her after a while. Terri's hands were still wrapped around pads to protect her palms; Michael removed the pads and tossed them into the trash. Her hands, curled tighter and tighter into fists over the years, had relaxed a little. Michael took a red rose from a vase by her bed and put it in her hands.

By now, Terri's parents had arrived at the hospice. Knowing they were on their way, Michael and Brian Schiavo went back to the room down the hall. Both of them were crying. Brian told his brother that he was happy for Terri, relieved that she no longer was living in such a state.

Terri's siblings, waiting across the street in a gift shop, learned of her death from the family's attorney, David Gibbs III. They waited for Terri's parents at the hospice entrance. Mary Schindler, Terri's mother, was the first to enter. Gibbs had the sense she knew her daughter was gone, even before a hospice worker spoke.

"Terri's passed this morning," the worker said.

Mary Schindler wept and walked down the hall to Terri's room. Bob Schindler, about 30 seconds behind his wife, heard the news as he entered.

The Schindler family -- Mary, Bob, Suzanne and Bobby -- gathered around Terri's bed. Gibbs stood in the hall, but could hear the family's sobs.

Here is an important reminder that people are more complicated than they appear when they're locked in an entirely public clash of worldviews, surrounded by klieg lights and TV cameras. Both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers have become the iconic faces of the right-to-die and right-to-life movements. For those of us who have followed this story as something more than distant observers, it's been tempting to assume the worst about one family or the other.

The debate about Terri Schiavo's life and death remains inescapable, and the questions it raises matter immensely to those on both sides who realize that crucial matters are at stake. But the tears shed by both families as Terri Schiavo died also ought to touch something in our souls, and to prompt us to pray -- not only for the comfort and strength of our allies, but also for God to shower mercy and grace into the lives of our opponents.

Please respect our Commenting Policy