She was not always Terri Schiavo (search), national obsession.

Diane Meyer remembers when she was Terri Schindler, a chubby child with big brown eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, a guest at Meyer's 3rd-birthday party at the Philadelphia Zoo.

As the birthday girl, Diane was given a key to storybooks posted around the zoo. Turn the key, and a recorded voice would talk about the animals. Other children at the party wanted a key, too, and were jealous.

But not Terri. "She was just so excited," so happy to be there, so thrilled to among the animals she loved more than anything in the world, Meyer said.

This is the Terri she remembers — not the heartbreaking figure whose every facial tic was scrutinized for evidence of a conscious mind within. Not the central figure of a maelstrom, silent as multitudes debated her life and death.

For those multitudes who never knew her, it was easy to forget that this was a real woman who led a real life. But for her friends and family, it was impossible to forget.

Meyer, for instance, remembers the time more than 20 years ago when an excited Terri called her at college. She had a date — the first date this once overweight girl had ever had. Please, Terri begged, you have to come home and help me get ready.

Meyer couldn't make it home in time, but she was there the next day, to rehash Terri's spectacular night of romance. The boy was tall and handsome and he had kissed her.

The boy was Michael Schiavo; she had met him at a sociology class at Bucks County Community College, and they married a little more than a year later.

He would be her only lover.

She did not go to her senior prom. She had had crushes, of course, unrequited — a boy named Vincent in seventh grade, for one. She adored Danielle Steel romances, pored over Tiger Beat magazine with her friends, debated who was cutest — Starsky or Hutch. She liked Starsky, and with her friend Sue Pickwell wrote scores of letters to Paul Michael Glaser, the actor.

Once, she and Meyer went to see "An Officer and a Gentleman" four times in one day.

She was a shy person. Her high school yearbook, from Archbishop Wood in suburban Philadelphia, lists only one activity — library aide. The Rev. Chris Walsh, the school minister, said while several teachers remain from those days, only one remembers Terri, and not much about her.

Benjamin Shatz lived next to the Schindlers' four-bedroom colonial on Red Wing Lane in the Albidale section of Huntingdon Valley. All he remembers is "a nice child, respectful, polite."

Her shyness may have had something to do with her weight. Just 5-foot-3, she weighed 200 pounds in high school. "She cried a lot when she went to get clothes," said her mother, Mary.

But Meyer remembers laughter, instead. "Among those who knew her, she was always vivacious. She had a laugh that made everyone laugh," she said.

She collected Precious Moments figurines, and stuffed animals — she had more than 100 of them, and spent hours in her purple-and-white bedroom arranging them. Real animals were her passion; she rode horses and wanted to be a veterinarian, but she was an unenthusiastic student and never graduated college.

Once, she came home crying at night, sure that she had run over a rabbit or squirrel. Her family calmed her down and convinced her no animal had died, but then her brother Bobby retrieved the dead bunny and threw it in the bushes, so she'd never know.

Another time, the family's Labrador retriever Bucky collapsed, and Terri tried to give him mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation. He died as she held him.

The Schindlers — Mary and Robert (owner of an industrial equipment company) and their children Theresa Marie, Bobby and Suzanne — were a tight-knit family. Terri joined her mother for Mass on Saturdays, and all would gather round the table for roast beef on Sunday.

She was especially close to her mother. "When people say I was her best friend, I say no," said Meyer. "I was her closest friend. Her mother was her best friend."

After she and Michael were married — on Nov. 10, 1984, at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, she in Victorian white with a pink-and-white bouquet, he in a gray tuxedo — the couple lived in the Schindlers' basement.

In 1986, they moved into a condominium her parents owned in Florida, paying $400-a-month rent; the rest of the Schindlers also moved to the Sunshine State.

By this time, the 200-pound Terri was no more. Dieting, she had lost more than 50 pounds by the time she started college. She dyed her hair blonde, wore a bikini, liked to tan and drive her Trans Am past construction sites.

"Terri has always been beautiful from the inside out," Meyer said. "And then when she lost all the weight, she really became quite beautiful on the outside as well. What was inside she allowed to shine out at that point."

In Florida, Michael was hired as a restaurant manager, and Terri was an office worker for Prudential insurance. "Everybody liked her. She was hardworking," said Jackie Rhodes, a co-worker and pal. (search)

They would shop for clothes and eat at Bennigan's. When a colleague ran a golf benefit for Angelus House, a home for the handicapped, Terri and Jackie volunteered. Rhodes joined Terri in her frequent visits to see her grandmother at a nursing home 30 miles away.

Was she happy? Rhodes said she wanted to have children and had stopped using birth control, but had not become pregnant. She had seen a doctor about it.

Her friends and family say she was unhappy with Michael. He was controlling, they say, and tried to keep her away from them; he was abusive, they say, and told her that if she ever got fat again, he would leave her.

By this time, she weighed less than 120 pounds, and her ribs were visible.

"I eat, Mom. I eat," she told her concerned mother.

Her family doubts that she had a real eating disorder; her doctors are not sure whether anorexia or something like it was the root of the potassium imbalance they say probably caused her heart to stop on Feb. 25, 1990, when she collapsed in the hallway outside of her bedroom.

She was 26 years old, an ordinary woman about to be thrust — unwillingly, unknowingly, unconsciously — into an extraordinary adventure. She died 15 years later, a symbol to millions around the world, a person to those who knew and mourned her.