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FIRST-PERSON: A father I’d want on my side

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–I envied Terri Schiavo for her father, Bob. There were times I thought: What a waste, she doesn’t know how good she has it. Not like it was her fault, but if only she knew.

But of course she knew.

From all the firsthand accounts and the vivid description of my friend David Gibbs, the attorney who fought for the right of Bob Schindler’s daughter to live, Terri herself knew what it was like to feel the whiskered face of her father rough up against her cheek and tickle her until she smiled.

She knew when he walked in the room and gently took her hand in his big one and squeezed it to ask her how her day was. Her eyes had followed his bright ones, though his were tinged by the pain of having to defend his position that she deserved to be cared for until God decided her life should end.

A father’s duty.

Some argued that it was her husband’s duty. At first it seemed that way.

Michael Schiavo seemed tolerant of her family’s visits, and even lived in their home for a while planning for her care after she suffered a neurological injury in 1990 caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. Her family visited her in various facilities. They brought her clothes. Her mom fixed her hair, put her makeup on, and took her on outings.

Then her husband seemed to grow weary. His heart was pulled to another. He had been married to Terri less than half a dozen years before Terri’s collapse. Finally, there was a judge who was willing to believe him when said he thought Terri would not want to live in her condition. He asked the judge for permission to remove her nutrition and hydration, knowing it would cause her to die.

And still Terri’s father and mother and sister and brother were there for her.

They appeared in court. They hired attorneys. They fought for the right to visit her, bring her comforting items, spend time in her room. The fight lasted nearly a decade.

The trips outside had stopped. No more makeup. Her window shades were pulled down and she was not allowed activities which were stimulating. She was sent to a hospice to die.

Right until the end, Bob refused to give up on his daughter.

“She’s still fighting and we are going to fight to do whatever we can to save her,” Bob said after the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a final appeal to hear her case on March 30, 2005. “I’m asking that nobody throw in the towel, she’s fighting — keep fighting with her.”

It was 9:05 a.m., the day after her father made that statement in front of the hospice, that Terri died. Thirteen days after her nutrition and hydration had been pulled, for the third time in 15 years.

I was there for many of those 13 days. And I had been there two years before, the second time the Schindlers had fought her husband and the court when they threatened to remove her sustenance. What few people understand is that Terri wasn’t hooked up to machines or anything, she simply needed food and water to live; because there was a fear she would choke, at some point she was put on a feeding tube.

In 2003 in front of the hospice in a trailer was the very first time I met the Schindlers and reported on their case. That extensive and very personal story is here: http://bit.ly/lo8Lx.

From the beginning Bob was warm and friendly, if worn. Mary was passionately sad. At one point in our interview she actually grabbed my hand and said, “Joni, I don’t know if I can go through this again,” referring to the court ordering Terri’s nutrition and hydration to cease.

My heart broke for all of them.

I’m two years older than Terri. I was raised Catholic, but after that, most of the similarities end. I never did know the love of a father, growing up. When Bob spoke of his firstborn and both their eyes filled with tears, I could only think of how I would feel if my firstborn, my daughter, would be in such a state.

I actually called my daughter on the way to the interview. I asked her what she thought. She told me, “Mama, I would want you to do whatever you wanted because, honestly, I wouldn’t know anything anyway. I would be just like a baby and you would be protecting me. So I understand.”

In meeting Bob and Mary and then covering the case for two years, I realized just how deep was their love — indeed how deep the family’s love is for each other. They were protective, caring, careful and steadfast.

Bobby Schindler, Terri’s brother, was always courteous and kind, though I am a member of the media. Suzanne Vitadamo, Terri’s sister, was steady but painfully conscious of our constant intrusion. All of them were involved in a balancing act of giving the press what we needed, knowing they could be crucified or vindicated, depending on who was doing the reporting.

But Bob, walking the crowds at night outside the hospice, eternally hopeful, ever vigilant, wore his heart in his eyes. Every bright tear spoke of the love he had for his daughter. It was apparent his only motivation was the love of a father. He was a man protecting his family in the noblest way.

I could hardly meet his eyes outside the hospice on the day she died as he stood with Bobby and Suzanne, chin slightly quivering. His tears were palpable. The horde of media were amazingly silent and respectful as Bobby read a statement. Red eyes all around me, in our ranks of media professionals, gave me the knowledge that I was not alone in thinking many witnesses to this day would walk away with the knowledge that this was not a “happy ending.”

Each time I thought about Terri’s death thereafter and tried to reconcile it with God’s sovereignty, I had a hard time. Especially when I considered her parents’ pain.

A year later when I went to St. Petersburg to interview Bob and Mary at the office of the foundation they had established to help people in similar circumstances, I finally gained some perspective.

Walking with me to my car after showing me around the office, Bob grabbed me in a hug to say goodbye. I felt those whiskers that were said to make Terri smile despite their irritation. It made me smile in spite of the lump in my throat.

He had lost so much, and I asked him, really, how he was doing.

“You are such a Baptocatholic,” he said, using the nickname he’d given me after finding out I was raised Catholic before becoming an evangelical Christian as a young teen.

He essentially told me he’d be fine, that God does have a plan and it’s hard but it’s was going to be OK.

“We just learn to forgive. We just have to,” he said, referring to a statement he had made in the office a few minutes before in which he said the timing of Terri’s death was “God’s will.”

God has a plan. He believed that, and so do I. Goodbye, my friend. Thanks for standing up for Terri until the very end. You were, indeed, a father I’d want on my side.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. She covered the Terri Schiavo story extensively and her photos were used in “Fighting for Dear Life: The Untold Story of Terri Schiavo” by David Gibbs and in an award-winning documentary hosted by Joni Eareckson Tada, “The Terri Schiavo Story.” A full-length version of this column can be found at jonibh.wordpress.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan