In the days after her feeding tube was removed by court order on March 18, Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings would visit her at the Hospice House Woodside in Pinellas Park, Fla., then retire across the street to the back room of a local gift shop, where there is a sofa and a fridge kept stocked by family friends. There, surrounded by books, board games and boxes of Kleenex, friends say, Robert and Mary Schindler alternately comforted their two other children and sobbed. Some days Mary was too upset to visit Terri. "It's hard to see someone fade away," her son Bobby said on March 28.
Inside the hospice, the goodbye was no less hard on Michael Schiavo. Though the hospice provided a guest room, he spent many nights by his wife's bedside, says a staffer. "He's very somber; he doesn't look good at all," says his friend Jill Schad. On the rare occasions when he left the building, he slipped out the back into a police van. The reasons for the secrecy were apparent: friends say Michael was faced with a growing number of death threats—some in notes left at his Clearwater, Fla., home, which he shares with girlfriend Jodi Centonze and their two children. "I told him, 'Are you gonna put your bulletproof vest on?' " recalls Schad. "He said, If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen.' [But] he's scared. How could he not be?"
Despite the pain on all sides, the elaborate choreography around Terri's deathbed never faltered as Terri's feuding relatives carefully steered clear of any chance encounters that might disturb the calm, loving atmosphere inside Terri's 12-by-10-ft. room. Whenever Michael withdrew to his guest room, a police officer on guard would radio a hospice administrator, who in turn would phone the Schindlers. Her family would then enter Terri's room, leaving the door open to comply with a court order for supervised visits. As Terri's health faded, Michael, who previously had given his in-laws limited time with their daughter, granted them visits of up to four hours. "They've got it down to a real science," says a hospice staffer.
Outside the hospice, the battle for hearts and minds over whether Terri should live or die grew only more rancorous—and sad. Having exhausted virtually every judicial and legislative remedy to order Terri's feeding tube reinserted, the Schindlers stirred supporters with emotional statements. "She is begging for help," Robert said. Echoing the conclusion long since reached by Terri's doctors and the courts, Michael's attorney George Felos described Terri's sounds and movements as "involuntary reactions." He added that Michael had requested an autopsy because "it's important to have the public know the full and massive extent" of the brain damage that put Terri in a persistent vegetative state in 1990. The Schindlers, by contrast, hope that an autopsy will provide answers to what caused Terri's condition.
Meanwhile, the hospice workers coped with the frenzy. "The police are at every entrance and exit," says a staffer. "We've got 70 other patients who deserve proper care." For a while the staffers debated whether Terri's feeding tube should be removed. "A lot of people have agreed to disagree, so we're not arguing in the break room anymore," says the staffer.
Terri's husband and family seem unable to reach a similar understanding—about anything, even her funeral arrangements. While the Schindlers asked that their daughter have a mass and be buried near them in Florida, Michael seemed determined to have his wife cremated and interred in his family plot near Philadelphia, where he and Terri grew up. Yet both sides are united by a terrible grief. "The parents are hurting, the siblings are hurting, Mr. Schiavo is hurting," says Felos. "It's very difficult to watch a loved one die."
By Jill Smolowe. Steve Helling and Jeff Truesdell in Pinellas Park
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