The story ends, the story begins
By Wesley Pruden
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published April 1, 2005
Rarely has convenience been held so dear or life so cheap. Rarely has the nation been held in such thrall over tragedy. But we haven't seen anything yet.
Before it ends, Terri Schiavo will seem the footnote to this saga of judges enthroned, Congress challenged, death embraced.
Michael Schiavo, who worked relentlessly over the years to persuade compliant courts to condemn his wife to death by starvation, peeled away a thin veneer of malevolence yesterday to reveal a poverty of spirit and soul within, announcing that he would bury the ashes of his estranged wife in a secret crypt to prevent her broken parents attending whatever services he may arrange to celebrate putting her away at last.
When Terri's death became imminent on her 13th day without food or water, with her eyes pleading and her parched lips cracked as if she had been marooned on a Sahara dune, Terri's in-laws began clearing her hospice room of those who loved her first, last and longest. With his brother as bouncer, Michael evicted Terri's distraught brother and sister.
Michael's mouthpiece, describing the end of the ordeal with the éclat and élan of a drumhead lawyer sniffing at a commission that promises to go on forever, said his client held his dying wife in his arms to the end. This could be the final scene, fanciful or not, in the made-for-television movie no doubt already in the works to make euthanasia a civil right to clamor for. Buzzards have rarely circled a prospective meal with the determination of Michael's circle of opportunists attending the dying Terri Schiavo.
"This isn't over by a long shot," the bouncer brother told reporters as Terri's body was taken to the morgue. "We're going to get our name right."
But despite Michael's good press -- one of the news agencies scorns objectivity to refer to him as "the dedicated husband who fought for a wife's right to die" -- there's growing evidence that the public has finally paid the attention needed to get the "dedicated" husband's number. The president of the United States sent the nation's official condolences to Terri's mother and father, pointedly sending nothing to the dedicated husband. President Bush urged those who tried to save Terri to "continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others."
The Vatican, which had earlier made a point of saying that Pope John Paul II is clinging to life with a feeding tube supplying food and water, was unequivocal in its condemnation of how Terri was abused as she lay dying. "The circumstances of the death of Ms. Terri Schiavo have rightly disturbed consciences," a spokesman for the pope said. "An existence was interrupted. A death was arbitrarily hastened because nourishing a person can never be considered employing exceptional means."
Perhaps her death will, as some suggest, set off a debate on what health care actually means. What it will do first is to send a lot of people to their lawyers to get a so-called "living will," setting out how and when doctors should stick them with tubes. Such wills are not easily enforced because the dead can't sue. The lawyers and their accomplices on the bench are probably working now to close this loophole. But something on paper is better than hearsay, which is all Michael Schiavo went to a friendly judge with, a conversation he didn't remember until Terri had been ill for seven years and the courts awarded him and Terri $1.2 million for malpractice. Every day that Terri lived after that, as a dedicated husband could easily figure out, would eventually nibble the settlement to nothing.
Congress has a score to settle with the judicial branch of the government, and though it's not yet clear how we can assume that congressional ego will out. It always does. George W. Bush will be inspired to fight harder for his nominations to the federal bench. Sitting judges will feel bracing red-state rage.
Michael is finally free to make an honest woman of his common-law wife and give their infant children their father's name. (No. 2 wife will be wise to pray she never gets sick.) For the Schindlers there's only the wan hope that the passage of time will make life bearable.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.