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August 08, 2018

David Walker: Opening My Eyes to the World and Learning to See
Category: 2018 Event, News, Speaker Announcements

DavidWalkerBlogCollage                                                                                                                    Dr. Griffiths has a British accent that I can barely hear as he and my mother talk in hushed tones a bit too loud to be a whisper. He is explaining the current situation to my mother in a very matter of fact way, and my mom, to her credit, is trying to remain calm, but she is on the verge of losing it. I can hear it in her voice. I can hear everything they are saying, but I can’t see a thing. I’m just a few months shy of my sixth birthday, and I might lose my eye. Dr. Griffiths tells my mom that if I do lose my eye, I will likely go blind in the other eye – something about too much strain. I’m not yet six, and I may be blind the rest of my life. All I can think about is that I’ll never get to watch television again.

I spent more than a week in the hospital, my eyes bandaged, living in complete darkness, as we waited to see if I would heal from a terrible accident. It was one of the longest times of my life – a time spent without watching television. Again, my biggest fear was that I would never get to watch TV…although that wasn’t my true fear. My true fear was that I would never see again, but at the age of five, the only way I knew to articulate the dread that crept around in my brain was to worry about never watching Saturday morning cartoons again.

It is difficult to fully comprehend how the accident and almost losing my sight affected me. I often think that my early obsession with film, television, and comic books – all largely visual mediums, and all industries that I have worked in – has some kind of correlation with the accident. In the back of mind there is a memory of me in the hospital bed, trapped in darkness, making a promise to myself that if I managed to heal – if I could keep my vision – I would never take the things I saw for granted. Maybe this is a real memory, or maybe it was manufactured years later, like so many memories are, as a way to make sense of the people we become, and the lives we lead. I can’t be sure of the memory, though I do know for a fact that I started looking at things differently at an early age. I didn’t just watch movies, I studied them. I didn’t just read comic books, I created them. Seeing was never enough. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked when, thirty-eight years later, I discovered how much I wasn’t seeing.

I went for a walk on July 4, 2012, trying to come to grips with a very difficult reality. Paul West, one of my best friends, was dying of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS – and it was clear he wouldn’t live to see his birthday at the end of August. So, I was out walking, thinking about life and death, when I saw a flower I had never seen before. It was strange and beautiful, and unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. As I continued along my walk, I saw the flower blooming in more yards. Eventually, I saw a woman tending to her garden, where this particular flower was growing. I asked her about it, and she told me it was a Lucifer flower – a Crocosmia. I told her that up until that day, I had never seen one before. “Oh, they grow everywhere,” she said to me, pointing out the Crocosmias blooming in nearly every yard on the block.

Looking at all the flowers blooming up and down the block, it dawned on me at that moment – months away from turning forty-four – that I had never paid attention to flowers before. “I guess I never really look at flowers,” I said to the woman. That’s when she started to cry. “How can you not see so much beauty?” she asked.

A few days later I went to visit Paul at hospice. His forty-second birthday was closing in fast, but I knew he would not live to see it. I got out of my car, but I couldn’t bring myself to go into the nursing home where Paul lay in a bed, unable to move, his booming voice and boisterous laugh muffled to little more than mumbles and grunts. That’s when I saw the flowers blooming all around me. Just a few yards away, one of my best friends lie in a bed, dying, and I was surrounded by incredible beauty. It made no sense to me. How could the world be so ugly and beautiful at the same time?

Gathering all my strength, I went into Paul’s room. He looked terrible. He looked like a man days away from dying. I had been visiting him several times a week for months, but I had run out of things to say…so I asked him if he’d seen the flowers blooming outside. Barely able to talk, Paul told me he couldn’t go outside – the heat was too much for him – and as a result, he couldn’t see the flowers. “I’ll take some pictures so you can see them,” I said.

Paul died a few weeks after that. Six years later, I’m still taking pictures of flowers. But more than that, I am opening my eyes and looking at the world around me – seeing what there is to see, and examining myself with a greater sense of vision. During my upcoming TEDx talk, I will be discussing the greater meaning of what it is to actually see something, and how doing this helped me reclaim my own humanity.

David Walker