"My spaceship has landed, and I'm frightened as hell."
After three hours of hanging out with the protesters in front of Terri Schiavo's nursing home in Pinellas Park March 22, that's all I can scribble in my notes. I'm sitting on the grass outside Woodside Hospice. As I write, I'm surrounded by 50 or so religious protesters who are praying, crying and shouting scripture through a bullhorn. It's day five since Terri's been without food or water, and the mood is dismal.
The woman sitting next to me is weeping, her fists clenched. I try not to stare as she punches her forehead in anguish. Behind her, five women sit in a group and pray.
Nearly 100 handmade signs color the crowd neon. "Michael, how is your other 'wife' and bastard kids?" says one. "Terri is the Sacrificial Lamb," says another. "We'll have your jobs if you don't save Terri," says a third. A man passes me holding an enormous banner that reads "Obey Jesus" in huge black and red letters. The other side of the sign says "Repent or else."
The crowd is smaller than I anticipated. Every major news organization in the country has placed the Schiavo controversy at the top of the news, yet the throngs of angry protesters have not materialized. I expected the streets to overflow with thousands of them from both sides of the argument. But there are only a few dozen people standing behind a flimsy orange plastic fence. And they're all on the same team.
AMONG THE RIGHTEOUS
A man with a shaved head and glasses walks over to where I'm sitting in the grass. For the last five minutes he's been trying his best to display his sign for the media tents across the street. He paces back and forth, making sure I see his "Repent or else" banner.
"You see that police officer over there?" he asks. "He told me he was gonna arrest my ass if I didn't move away from him." He pauses for a second and ponders. "Then outta nowhere, a bee started chasing me!"
"A bee?" I asked.
"Yes sirree. A bee," he says. "Maybe it was the good Lord tryin' to keep me outta trouble."
We giggle together. He continues talking.
"I just left the hospital. I got an aneurysm in my chest that ain't popped yet. I came straight here as soon as I got out," he says proudly.
"Did you say aneurysm?" I ask, shocked. "You have an aneurysm in your chest? I'm so sorry." I am genuinely sad for him.
He smiles. "I ain't scared. I got Jesus," he says. "And worms."
"Worms?" I ask.
"You can't see these worms everywhere? I think Mother Nature is tryin' to get me. First bees. Now worms."
I examine the grass. No worms. I look up at his sign. No worms. I'm confused, so I just stay quiet.
Suddenly, a man begins screaming into a loudspeaker positioned just a few feet away from my left ear. Startled, I jump from my seat and place my hand over my chest.
"Ichabod, Ichabod, Ichabod," screams the man. The term, I recall from my days at Christian school, is Hebrew for "inglorious." The man, dressed in a suit with a Bible in one hand, continues.
"The glory of the Lord has departed from this judicial system," he yells. "The cops told me they would arrest me if I brought Terri a glass of water. These renegade judges are murdering Terri. They have gone against Congress, and they have gone against God!"
A man behind me shouts, "Amen!" I want to fit in, so I shout "amen" too. Bad move. Another man with long curly hair and a baseball cap makes eye contact with me. He's carrying an upside-down bucket that he's using for a drum. With a wooden stick, he beats the drum twice, then pauses before he beats the drum twice again. With every pair of drumbeats, he's closer to where I sit.
"Excuse me," he says quietly as he approaches. "My friend just got arrested for trying to bring Terri water."
"Oh no, really?" I have no idea what to say.
"Yeah, they told me I can go bail him out of jail now. Will you beat my drum for me while I'm gone? It's supposed to symbolize her heartbeat," he says.
As I open my mouth to say no, a strange thing happens: I say yes. He reaches over and hangs the bucket around my neck, then passes me the drumstick. "Great! I'll be back before you know it," he says warmly.
Mistake No. 1: Never trust a man beating a homemade drum. Mistake No. 2: Never commit to beating a drum when you're supposed to be taking notes.
For two hours I pace the crowd beating the drum and snapping photos. It's 90 degrees. I have two large pools of sweat staining the armpits of my long-sleeved shirt. Newspaper photographers are stalking the crowd. One of them sees me and aims his camera in my direction, like a police officer aiming a rifle at a fugitive. "Damn, I don't want my picture in the paper," I think to myself. I'm so distracted by the thought I don't realize I've stopped beating the drum. An older woman looks at me with wide eyes. "Don't stop beating the drum! Don't stop beating the drum!" she says, almost frantically.
Shit! Heartbeat! Got it! I begin beating the drum harder and faster than before as I weave through the crowd trying to escape the photographer. Alarmed by my rapid drumbeats, another woman yells, "Slow down the heartbeat, she ain't hyperventilating." She laughs at her own joke.
I can't take the pressure of this job. I have to ditch the drum. My palms are sweaty as I search for an escape route. I'm saved (no pun intended). It's prayer time.
A woman grabs the loudspeaker and instructs all Catholics in the crowd to come forward for Holy Communion. "I'd like to remind everyone that we have very strict rules about Communion only Catholics can partake of the body and blood of Christ," she announces. A look of resentment washes over the faces of a few men to my left. One voices his disappointment.
"Communion should be for everyone. The Lord doesn't discriminate against those who love Him," he says, frustrated.
The woman continues. "But I hope all of you will join us in prayer, so stop what you're doing." The prayer begins, eyes close and heads bow. I have to act now, so I drop the drum, throw the stick and run toward the exit. The odds are in my favor for a clean escape; Catholic prayers last forever.
As the crowd says amen, I'm almost in the clear. I only have to pass a group of three women and I'm home free. No problem, right? Wrong.
One of the women reaches her arm across the orange fence to stop me. "Excuse me, Miss? We have a question for you," she says. "Why were you beating that drum over there?"
"Oh, it's supposed to symbolize Terri's heartbeat," I say with a smile.
Her eyes narrow and she leans in closer. "Well, I hate to tell you this, but it sounded like a death march." The woman next to her shakes her head in disapproval. "Yeah, don't do that anymore, it's sending the wrong message," she says. "Gosh, nothing satisfies you people," I say, immediately regretting my choice of words. "I mean, I was just trying to do something positive." The women turn their backs on me.
Today I was one of them. Tomorrow, I'll be returning to test the waters of free speech as the voice of dissent. God help me.
'NO ROOM FOR LIBERALS'
I wake up on day two with an overwhelming sense of dread. Terri Schiavo is dying. Her family is distraught. Her husband is being vilified by media organizations that ought to know better. This situation is a tragedy with no possible good outcome.
But I'm writing about the people outside the nursing home, and the media event Terri's life and death have become, and that's a story that isn't complete without a view from both sides of the fence. So I climb into my car with two small signs that I made the night before. One reads, "She's a person, NOT a political agenda"; the other, "She's been through enough, let her die in peace."
I turn on my car, put it in drive and stomp on the gas. Two CDs and a lot of cow pastures later, I am back at ground zero. As I approach the protesters, my signs are rolled up. A 20-foot crucifix stares back at me from the crowd. The words, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," are scrawled in the center of the cross. Another sign with Terri's name is nailed at the very top. Yikes.
I walk through the crowd three times, searching for anyone who agrees with the idea that Terri should be allowed to die, but I'm the only one here today. I've read the opinion polls, and I know that the crowd outside the nursing home is a vocal minority. I know that most Americans think Terri should not be kept alive in a vegetative state against what her husband Michael Schiavo says were her wishes. I know that a solid majority believe Congress getting involved is abominable. But in this case, the silent majority is a no-show.
I rush to the edge of the fence, unroll my signs and turn them toward the cameras. The media swarms like sharks in bloodied water. My shoulders are stiff, my head is pounding.
The first man to notice my signs is standing right next to me. He's holding a smaller crucifix over his head, scowling at me in disgust. He whispers in the ear of the woman standing next to him. She looks at my signs. Fire dances in her eyes. My confidence fades.
I can't bear the weight of my own cowardice, so I walk away. Cameras are feasting on me as if I were Terri Schiavo herself. Lucky for me, a girl with red tape over her mouth and a "Life" poster stands in front of the cameras, blocking me from their lenses. I walk over to the empty side of the grass, enduring jeers and angry questions. "How can you agree with murder?" one woman asks. I look down at the grass and keep walking.
I put my signs on the grass and walk through the crowds again to take some photos. When I return five minutes later, one of my signs is torn in half, and both have been stepped on.
Picking up the remains, I head for the exit. A group of four men begins applauding my departure. I squint my eyes hard and turn to face them. "Can't a citizen of the United States of America stand here and peacefully protest without being looked down upon?"
The four look at each other and chuckle. "You been watching the news, darlin'?" one man asks me. "There's no more room for the liberals. We got all the Congresses on our side. This country is changing. Change with it."
My eyes focus on the sign he's holding: "Flash Gordon says starvation is not legal." I begin to laugh. "Flash Gordon? Isn't that a cartoon character?" I ask. "I don't get it."
He ignores me. I'm still laughing as I walk toward my car. I hear a buzzing sound, and turn around to see a woman in an electric wheelchair coming toward me. She stops next to me at the crosswalk.
"Are you coming from the loony bin over there?" she asks, laughing. "Some of those people ain't right in the head. No use arguing with 'em. Go home."
We share a laugh and I put my hand on her shoulder. "I'm on my way."