- Ultimate Gifts
Day 53. Double-click. Waiting for pixels to array, eyes squeezed shut and lungs pressed firm against ribs. Tom will, I’m sure, look gaunt and sunken. The photographer will exploit that for optimal effect. My brother will comply to underscore his protest, even now in its final wheezing hours. He could have died— could still die. Today, tomorrow, a month from now. Like he’s been doing for weeks.
This isn’t your workaday dilemma. What’s viable to Tom has always been out of my depth. This is but his latest and most lethal in a lifetime of actions to change the world. I vacillate between faith and foreboding, the way one might root for the scrappy runt in a fierce fight. Sometimes fear spills out, or anger, or despair. Hauling in a last pinched breath, the kind you draw when you know it’s going to hurt, I open my eyes to peer warily at the screen.
Activist Ends Hunger Strike. There he is. The color image, centered on the page, is four columns wide by five inches high, composed diagonally and hovering above its subject. Against a deep blue dividing curtain in the emergency room at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, the flimsy blanket frames pasty fingers on a hospital bed. Tom’s balding head, propped up by an aqua pillow, is flushed. Deep-set eyes cave further into their hollows. Skin stretches taut over a sharp-angled nose, and thin lips are parted as in speech. A white sheet sags over wasting ribs. In the upper left foreground, a saline bag sprouts knobs and an IV tube snakes clear liquid into Tom’s right elbow. Shadowy blotches smear the towel beneath his arm.
Protest, aimed at Japanese whaling ...I exhale audibly, curled over my laptop in a molded seat in a bustling airport terminal, feeling knots in my shoulders release. Okay, this is okay. Tom is alive, the photo dignified. This is no lunatic, the caption reassures, but a principled man pushing environmental [End Page 27] passion to the limit. I skim the story, scrolling down through a mist of relief. It’s surprisingly long— he’ll like that—filling over half a page in the San Diego Union-Tribune. The second photo, a close-up head shot, shows exhaustion in bronze eyes furrowed and slit against institutional glare after weeks in a darkened room. The wildish fear that has stalked me for weeks slinks away. He’s okay.
To many, it was a quixotic quest. To some, Falvey exhibits the kind of ideals that too many lack. Reporter Mike Lee, alerted by several former Greenpeace associates, interviewed Tom in his flat on day 49 of his hunger strike. He found the story incredulous until Tom offered to bare his emaciated chest. The reporter then queried me and several others by phone, following up with Tom in the ER three days later.
The San Diego Police Department was also contacted by these associates to force an end to this protest. Officers checked in on Tom twice, peering cautiously at the lanky frame in a slack white T-shirt and jeans leaning stiffly against the doorjamb. Confirming his intent, they informed him that he would be taken to a psychiatric unit when he became too compromised to function. How else do you deal with a 62-year-old man starving himself to death?
What was more important, Falvey’s cause or his health? An editor’s sidebar frames the ethical quandary of recent days for the Union-Tribune news team, the agony of weeks for those closest to Tom. Here is a man protesting an environmental crime: a man who has accrued a lifetime of nonviolent activist protests, who appears to be of sound mind, who is trying to influence decision makers far removed from the local community. And who is now near death. Should anyone willing to harm themselves in pursuit of attention win coverage? While the news staff debates whether to air the story, Tom reluctantly ends his strike under threat of involuntary commitment.
No one goes quietly into the night. Even as he teeters on...