‘It’s a barbaric way to die,” multi-platinum country-music singer Collin Raye says to me, reflecting on the life of Terri Schiavo, the cognitively disabled woman in Florida who was starved to death in 2005.
Raye, who had 15 number-one hits in the 1990s, including “Love, Me,” “Little Rock,” and “I Think About You,” is talking to me about Schiavo because he has just become the official spokesman for the Schiavo Life and Hope Network, the foundation Terri’s brother Bobby Schindler heads, providing just that: hope for life. The network offers both education and support so that families faced with similar challenges — who are often given only deadly advice — can have the support they need in caring for their ailing loved ones.
“I know that there are a lot of complex issues involved,” Raye acknowledges. “But in the case of Terri, she didn’t need any extraordinary means. She wasn’t on a respirator. She simply needed food and water to stay alive. I think that is one of the saddest chapters in American history.”
“It’s amazing to me how spirited the other side is,” Raye tells me. “I don’t even understand why it’s controversial. In the case of Terri Schiavo, it was a slam-dunk to me. I don’t know how anyone can actually look at what happened with her and say, ‘This was right.’ That was wrong on so many levels, not the least of which is how it was carried out. Two weeks of starvation?”
“Prisoners on death row who are scheduled for execution are treated with more compassion,” he tells me, perplexed. “There are candlelight vigils outside of prisons making sure these people are humanely treated,” he recalls. “And maybe that’s a good thing, but that’s for another discussion,” suggesting he has the same discomfort with our use of capital punishment as I do. Without abandoning a concern for their human dignity, however, he adds that in the case of prisoners on death row, “these are people who chose to do something despicable to another — as opposed to Terri, who was an absolute innocent victim.”
Raye relishes, even treasures, his new role, as the Schindler family works to create a network of support for those who want to protect the dignity of the cognitively disabled, those at the end of life, and those dependent on the support of others for feeding and other regular, but basic, care.
“There’s a clear-cut goal here,” Raye emphasizes. “It’s not to keep talking about their sister. It’s about telling the whole story.”
Raye is grateful, he says, for the opportunity “to utilize my time in a more valuable way. It is a chance to weigh in and speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
The story is a personal one for Raye as much as it is political and cultural. His wife, Connie, suffered a heart attack and stroke when she gave birth early to their son Jacob. She would remain in a coma for eight months, and turning off the machines that were keeping her alive was suggested. But Connie would recover, after a lot of hard work relearning things such as walking and talking. She would live to be a grandmother. But that grandchild — Haley, born with a neurological disability that left her mute — would herself die at the age of nine in April 2010. In his 2008 song “She’s With Me,” Raye talks about what an undeserved honor it was to have her in his life:
She’s with me
I proudly tell the maitre d’ as we arrive
He seems surprised
In a clumsy moment as he looks for room, for her blessed chair
A table stares, and their eyes show only pity
As they try to sympathize
Oh, how difficult that must be, look away
Happy at the times I know that she’s with me
. . .
I know just what heaven looks like when I see that perfect face
For no other mortal heart could be so fair
I myself so weak and weary, so imperfect as a man
How could I be the one you chose to care for our girl
Never done a single deed to earn the right to share her light
Though it’s such a painful road we walk each day
Lord you have your ways, this I pray.