Michael Schiavo
WIDOWER

Michael Schiavo's life has settled down since doctors removed the feeding tube from his brain-damaged wife, Terri, on March 18. After their long and bitter legal battle, he and Terri's parents, Robert Sr. and Mary Schindler, may never speak again. But Schiavo, 42, who works as a nursing supervisor in Pinellas County, Fla., is still angry at the way his personal family drama climaxed on the national stage—and the way the battle over Terri's fate set off a stunning display of political histrionics, including an emergency session of Congress, that landed him squarely in the middle of the culture wars. Schiavo, who according to his brother Brian received death threats, will tell his side of the ordeal in a memoir, Terri: The Truth, which is due out in the spring; he has also started a political action committee. "There's more important stuff going on in the world right now," says Brian, "but he's not going to let people forget how he was vilified—so it doesn't happen again to someone else."

Elizabeth Edwards
CANCER SURVIVOR

Diagnosed with breast cancer on Nov. 3, 2004—the day after John Kerry and her husband, John Edwards, lost the election—she has spent the last year lying low, getting treatment and getting better. After aggressive rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation, Edwards, 56, is now cancer-free. With a book to write, a new house to build and two small children—Emma Claire, 7, and Jack, 5—to care for (Cate, 23, works in New York City), she is happy just to gather her loved ones close around her this holiday season. "I know that for today—I don't want to tempt fate—the worst my family and I feared did not come to pass," she says. "People across the country told me there would be a brighter day, and they were right."

Sandra Day O'Connor
RETIRING SUPREME COURT JUSTICE

AND THEN THERE WAS ONE: The first female U.S. Supreme Court justice admits she's disappointed that President Bush isn't nominating a woman to replace her. "I was hoping...," she says.

WHAT RETIREMENT? O'Connor, 75, who announced she was leaving in July, will remain on the bench until a successor has been confirmed. She says husband John, 75—a retired lawyer in the early stages of Alzheimer's—can wait: "He doesn't need me telling him what to do!"

Beth Twitty
COURAGEOUS MOM

A DAY IN THE LIFE: The search for her daughter Natalee Holloway, who went missing in Aruba on May 30 and has yet to be found, begins at 7 a.m. "From there... it's copying, faxing, organizing, coordinating." She usually doesn't rest until 1 in the morning. "People say they don't see me cry," says Twitty, 45. "But they don't go to bed with me."

TALKING TO NATALEE: Twitty believes her daughter is somehow helping her keep the heat on the investigation. One day recently, she went into Natalee's room—virtually untouched since the girl's disappearance—and told her, "You are really hitting 'em hard today, baby."

MILESTONES MISSED: The start of Natalee's freshman year at the University of Alabama; her 19th birthday, Oct. 21. "We've gone from spring to summer to fall," Twitty says. "We're about to be in the fourth season."

Melissa Etheridge
Her soulful rasp always could raise goose bumps. But nothing prepared the music world for February's Grammy telecast—when Etheridge, 44, bald and beautiful after chemotherapy and radiation treatments for breast cancer, blew the roof off the Staples Center with an electrifying tribute to Janis Joplin. In the fall she released a new album, The Road Less Traveled, and she has a sitcom in development with ABC.

Deep Throat
Who was Deep Throat, the mysterious tipster who met Bob Woodward in parking garages and helped bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal? Aside from the JFK assassination, it was arguably the deepest mystery in American political history. After more than 30 years, Mark Felt, an ailing 92-year-old ex-FBI agent long prominent in Deep Throat speculation, stepped out of the shadows. Why now? His children persuaded him to take credit while he still could. "My grandfather... went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself," said his grandson Nick Jones, 23, "to save his country from a horrible injustice."

Cindy Sheehan
Driven by grief and rage, when she camped outside President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch last summer demanding recognition for her son Casey, killed in Iraq, she became the pied piper of peace—and a lightning rod for folks on both sides of the war. But for now, Sheehan, 48, can't be stopped. "I promised Casey that I would not quit," she says. "I have found my life's work in his death."

Ashley Smith
HEROIC HOSTAGE

Before escaped convict Brian Nichols held her hostage in her Atlanta apartment for seven hours on March 12, Smith, a waitress, "didn't really see a future for myself," she says. She watched her husband die after he was stabbed in an early morning brawl in 2001 and, despondent, became addicted to crystal meth and gave up custody of daughter Paige, 6. After she persuaded Nichols—who had already killed four people—to give himself up by reading from Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, Smith, 27, found her own salvation. She's been off drugs since the ordeal; she wrote a book and gives inspirational speeches; she drives her daughter to school and coaches her basketball team—and she's on her way to regaining custody. "It took having a gun shoved in my face, but I'm done playing games with God," she says. "I'm ready to live my life."

Bird Flu
It was just what we needed: something else to scare the hell out of us. The Avian flu virus—H5N1—has spread to countries including China, Thailand and Indonesia. In this form, it isn't easily transmitted to humans—67 people have died so far. Still, scientists fear H5N1 could mutate into something readily passed between people, and they're scrambling to make a vaccine to stave off a pandemic—like the one that claimed 50 million lives in 1918.

The BTK Killer
Standing shackled in the courtroom where he was finally brought to justice, Dennis Rader, the self-styled BTK ("Bind, Torture, Kill") murderer, embodied the banality of evil: a bespectacled everyman blandly describing the horrific details of a 17-year killing spree that took 10 lives—"projects," he called them—and terrorized Wichita, Kans. Before sentencing Rader, 60, to 10 consecutive life terms, the judge asked why he did it. The monotone response: "It was a sexual fantasy, sir."

Face Transplant
After her dog ripped off most of her face, 38-year-old Frenchwoman Isabelle Dinoire withdrew from public view, and for the next six months after that May night, she ventured out only in a mask. But in late November she was thrust into the international spotlight, recipient of the first-ever partial face transplant, as doctors in Amiens, France, fitted her with the nose, lips and chin of a brain-dead donor. That the procedure incited widespread medical and ethical controversy mattered little to the patient, who, after setting eyes on her new face, wept and scribbled an eloquently simple message: "Merci."