Friday, April 01, 2005

Theresa Marie Schiavo

The New York Times
April 1, 2005

Theresa Marie Schiavo

One of the most astonishing things about the human experience is the realization that loved ones die. The first time it happens, we are invariably amazed that nearly everyone who has ever lived has weathered an experience so wrenching. We see other humans on the street and in the shops and marvel that they manage to simply go about their business - that there is no constant, universal primal scream in the face of such an awful fact.

That level of grief seldom brings out the noblest emotions. The sufferers can barely make their way through the day, let alone summon their best reserves of patience and compassion for the lucky people who continue to live. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the whole world witnessed what happens when that natural emotional frailty is taken captive by politics.

It was awful, and according to the polls, the American public shrank from the sight of it.

What little we know about Terri Schiavo - the person, as opposed to the videotape - tells us that she would have been appalled by the last weeks of her life. What worse nightmare could a rather shy and affectionate young woman conjure up than 15 years of lingering unconsciousness, in which the entire globe became intimately familiar with the sight of her wasted limbs while the people she loved most engaged in a vicious court fight for control of her body?

That kind of ordeal - even if the victim was unaware she was enduring it - deserves to be honored with some meaning. On the most pragmatic level, she has been the instrument of thousands, and probably millions, of intimate conversations in which family members told one another what they would like to happen if their own bodies outlived their minds. In countless other cases, people recalled the days on which they had said goodbye to loved ones, and perhaps many came closer to peace in dealing with their own great losses.

Americans are a deeply pragmatic people, who constantly surprise ideologues of every persuasion with their willingness to accept whatever solution seems to work best at the moment. Our great ideals, when they are boiled down at a moment of crisis, often turn out to be mainly instincts - for fairness, for the right of individual self-determination or sometimes just for the pursuit of happiness. Watching the Schiavo case unfold, most Americans quickly opted for the solution that would end the ordeal.

Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the conclusion that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die. They deserve respect, just as her husband and her other relatives deserve sympathy.

Those relatives also deserve to be left alone, to be protected from a spotlight that turned a family tragedy into an international spectacle of sometimes shocking vulgarity and viciousness. The case attracted outsiders in search of little more than another opportunity to further their own self-aggrandizement. But worst of all were the powerful people who looked at the world we live in today, in which politics is about maximizing hysteria at the margins, and concluded that the Schiavo fight was a win-win - for everyone but the people who actually cared about the dying woman.

Today, finally, there is a moment of consensus. Rest in peace, Theresa Marie.