11/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
In the long, bitter war over the fate of Terri Schiavo, it was the most humble of victory parties. On Oct. 23, just two days after Florida's governor ordered her reattached to the feeding tube that has sustained the Florida woman in a vegetative state for 13 years, her parents, Mary and Robert on Schindler, gathered with loved ones in a tight circle around her hospice bed. The occasion was Robert's 66th birthday, but the woman of the hour was Terri, 39. While most neurologists believe she is trapped in a limbo akin to brain death, her brother Robert Jr., a teacher, saw life behind her open eyes. "We put a candle on the cake and lit it and held it so Terri could see," he says, "When we all gathered around her bed and sang happy birthday to our dad, she was very alert and responsive." Adds her father: "She was glowing, She's doing well, considering what she has been through."
The same cannot be said for her family. On Oct. 27 Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, her legal guardian, appeared CNN's Larry King Live, accusing his in-laws of trying "to make my life hell." Attempting since 1998 to remove Terri's feeding tube, he is now challenging the state of Florida, claiming it violated his right to make his wife's end-of-life decisions. Previous cases—like that of Karen Ann Quinlan, whose respirator was removed in 1985,10 years after she lapsed into a coma—seem to indicate that legal precedent is on Michael's side. But after the Schindlers successfully lobbied Florida legislators to pass a law enabling Gov. Jeb Bush to force life support to be resumed, they seemed to have the upper hand. No one is giving in. "It seems like a circus at this point," says Michael's brother Bill, 49. "And it seems like Terri is just totally forgotten in all the accusations and threats."
The accusations have grown more heated since Oct. 15, the day doctors, following a court order, removed Terri's feeding tube. "I don't know why he's so intent on killing her," Terri's mother, Mary Schindler, 62, says of Michael. She claims her son-in-law was so controlling that he routinely checked her daughter's car odometer to see how far she had driven and harangued her about her weight. "I know he told her if you do get fat, I'll dump you," she says. That charge is especially loaded, because elevated levels of potassium—common in bulimics—may have been a factor in the 1990 heart attack that caused Terri's brain damage. (His lawyer denies the charges.)
Michael, who hasn't spoken to his in-laws in five years, says he exhausted every medical avenue to help his wife recover and now merely wants to honor a verbal request she made early in their marriage: that extreme measures not be used to keep her alive. "The accusations are cutting him extremely deeply," says Bill.
Not so long ago, happiness seemed in store for Terri and Michael Schiavo, who wed in 1984 after meeting at a Pennsylvania community college. In 1987 the pair moved to Clearwater, Fla., where Michael worked as a restaurant manager and Terri was a secretary for Prudential. A year later her parents moved nearby. "We were all very close, very tight," Michael told People in 2000.
That changed forever one night in February 1990, when Michael awoke to find Terri lying face down in the hall-way. By the time EMTs could restart her heart, it had stopped beating for five minutes, causing irreparable brain damage. Although doctors—who never determined the cause of the heart attack—said Terri would never recover, Michael initially sought a cure, earning a nursing degree so he could help with her care and taking her to California for experimental treatment designed to stimulate motor function. In 1992 he sued Terri's doctors for malpractice and won $700,000 to go toward his wife's care and $300,000 for his loss of companionship.
In 1998 Michael says he became convinced that Terri would never recover and sought permission to remove the feeding tube. At the same time, he fell out with the Schindlers. He says the feud began after Robert Schindler demanded a share of the lawsuit money. But they deny that and believe his change of heart was motivated by meeting his current girlfriend, Jodi Ann Centonze, 38, with whom he had a baby girl last year. Although his in-laws have offered to take custody of Terri, Michael—who says only $50,000 remains from the lawsuit—has refused. "He's cut Terri out of his life," says Mary. "I want to help her."
Michael Schiavo says he wants to help Terri too—by letting her slip away without suffering. After her feeding tube was removed, he stayed at Terri's hospice in Pinellas Park, feeling "kind of a mixture between sadness and relief," says his brother Steve, 47. Outside the building, however, hundreds of protesters gathered to support the Schindlers, who broadcast footage of their daughter smiling and moving on a Web site called terrisfight.org. Steve Schiavo says his brother is furious that politicians then intervened: "He just couldn't believe the governor would do something like that."
Now Michael, an ER nurse, is planning to fire a legal salvo by challenging the new state law as unconstitutional. In court he'll likely call medical experts as witnesses to argue that Terri's occasional smiles and moans are reflexes, nothing more. "It's scary, because it looks like your loved one is there, but they're not," says neurologist Ronald Cranford, who examined her last year. Her parents have concluded otherwise. "She knows we're there. She tries very hard to talk," says Mary. "We understand what she's saying." If only the doctors—and lawyers—could know her wishes too.
Lori Rozsa in Miami