Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray
Steve Charles—When I heard that the movie “I’ll Push You” was about two best friends—one in a wheelchair—on a 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain, I assumed the hero would be the pusher. Patrick Gray, who so loves his friend that he’ll do anything to help him.
And that’s not wrong. But it’s only half the story.
That’s only half of what friendship is, not to mention what love is. Because the real hero of the story is the guy in the wheelchair.
And this is how our hero introduced himself Sunday night after a screening of the movie in Salter Hall—the first words he uttered as he wheeled onstage:
“I’m sorry you had to see my butt crack up there.”
So this is a hero of a different sort.
The disease that put Justin Skeesuck in the chair is called Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy. Ironically, MAMA, for short. MAMA’s vicious. She makes your immune system attack your nerves, tearing them down bit by bit. Justin first noticed symptoms when he was 16, six months after he’d been in a car accident. The onset was slow. He was able to pursue a career as a designer, get married, have kids. But he says he could feel the disease ravaging its way through his body nerve by nerve.
“I would get twitching and cramps in whatever muscle was going to go next.”
“We spent years trying to make him better and he’s just getting worse and worse,” his doctor says in the film. “And the hardest thing is telling him what’s going to happen.”
Justin and Patrick have been friends since grade school. They were born a day apart in the same small town in Oregon. They practically passed each other at the hospital doors. Justin’s dad says “the boys have never really gotten into trouble, but let’s just say they’ve created a little havoc.”
There are pictures of them at one each other’s graduations, with their girlfriends who become their wives who become the mothers of their kids. All smiles and goofy looks.
Then there’s this picture of Patrick carrying Justin on his back on the beach some time after the diagnosis. The friendship deepens. Patrick tears up when he describes watching Justin struggle. He says he wishes it was him instead, and he says it in such a way that you realize it might be easier for him.
One day Justin is watching a Rick Steve’s Europe episode on PBS about the Camino de Santiago and wonders out loud if he could do that—if he and Patrick could do it. And Patrick, being the friend you can always count on, says, “Sure. I’ll push you.”
But the pastoral images Justin saw on the travel program don’t show the 4,000 feet they’ll have to climb the first day, the creeks they’ll have to ford, the two days of “something a lot like Kansas” they’ll have to cross in the heat, or the treacherous descents. It all seems like a moderately difficult walk on film—unless you have wheels and about 200 extra pounds to push up those hills, those rocks, through that mud. And part of the wheelchair breaks early on.
About 3/4 of the way, after a place they call the iron cross, Patrick cramps up—his legs become twitching, painful muscle. He’s lying on the road face down and some people who have been helping are trying to massage the cramps out. A family that has joined the two friends for a couple of days now has to stay longer, as the two friends are about to face one of the toughest stretches of the trail to get to the town of O Cebreiro.
Patrick is struggling with his soul as much as his body—he regrets taking a job that has taken so much time that he doesn’t see his kids as much as he used to, that he isn’t there for his wife, who earlier in the film calls Patrick “my best friend.” Everyone else in the film has called Patrick “the kindest man I’ve ever met” and “generous to a fault,” but when Patrick is first thinking about helping Justin do the pilgrimage, his wife says, “Why not?” As if the next line could be, “You’re not here anyway.” Patrick remembers times he’s been dismissive with his kids. His need to control things, putting others at a distance. Insisting he can do things by himself. And it’s weighing on him more heavily than the 10 or 12 times a day he has to lift his friend out of his wheelchair.
That’s when more friends show up. Friends along the way. People who have heard about Justin and Patrick, know the difficulty of this particular section, want to help them make it.
It’s a tough moment for Justin. He’s used to letting Patrick help, but now all these strangers?
“But I’ve learned that if you don’t let people help, you rob them of the joy they find in that,” he says. “The joy we find in helping one another.” And the next scene shows Patrick walking in the lead unfettered by the chair, all those friends doing the pushing.
“It’s the first time since we got here that I haven’t been connected to the chair in some way,” Patrick says. He seems disoriented.
But the scene at the top of the hill is joyous—all those friends taking turns pushing, encouraging, hugging, laughing. The very heart of the film. And only because Patrick can’t do it all by himself and Justin’s true humility allows others to step in.
When the friends reunite with their families at Santiago de Compostela, Patrick embraces his wife and says something to her, but we don’t hear it. It’s all tears and smiles.
And there’s this line from a guy who was with Patrick and Justin their first week on the Camino, an EMT:
“In my work I see people on the worse day of their lives; they call me when they don’t know who else to call. I’ve watched people die. What really matters at the end of the day, in that moment when your life suddenly changes, is the people around you, and the relationships you’ve built throughout your entire life. Taking the time to stop and be there for a friend, in whatever capacity they need. We can all do more of that in our lives. We can all take that time.”
After the film screening in Salter Hall Sunday night—after Justin’s opening crack about his crack—Patrick told us what he said to his wife at the end of that journey: “I am so sorry for all the times I’ve broken your heart.”
His wife’s response: “If you never broke my heart, how would I be able to love you more?”
He has since left the job that took him away from his family, and he and Justin now tour with this film and write full-time. Patrick’s marriage, and family, rejuvenated.
The half hour Q and A following the film was the most honest—at times funniest—public conversation I’ve heard in 22 years here. And it continued at the book signing, lots of words of encouragement, lots of laughter.
The philosopher Jean Vanier writes: “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.”
Vanier also believes that people like Justin—who are living something we’ll all go through in our own way one day—help us to see that deepest truth.
Justin says in the film: “It’s a hard pill to swallow, and it’s something that I continually work through in situations where I have to rely on others to move me forward. I can’t do anything. I feel helpless. I kind of feel like a burden in some ways. And that’s a natural way of thinking.
“I have to continually let it go. I have to continually trust and love and let them find their joy in it.
“Because they love it.”
A group of students who walked the Camino last spring with Professors Dan Rogers and Gilberto Gomez as part of a Wabash class had a long lunch with Justin and Patrick on Sunday. Dan says they mostly swapped stories about the people they met there.
“The Camino is never just about you,” one of the friends in the film says.
There were about 160 people at the screening on Sunday evening, a good number of them students, and many of those students stuck around after the Q and A to talk.
You wonder how this film, meeting these guys, will fit into their liberal arts education, their understanding of what it means to be a man.
This event was funded by alumnus Larry Landis and other donors to the President’s Distinguished Speakers’ Series, as well as the Lecture and Film Committee.