Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray are lifelong friends who came to share their journey and lessons learned about friendship, community, and faith to the people of High Desert Church (HDC) in Victorville, CA.
It would seem Justin and Patrick were destined to be friends — their parents were friends in college and Justin’s great uncle was Patrick’s grandfather’s best man in his wedding.
So, naturally, when Justin and Patrick were born 36 hours apart at the same hospital in 1975, the family tradition carried on.
“We’ve been connected since day one,” Patrick said.
The two boys did everything together: family activities, church activities, school, and sports.
Over the weekend, the men shared their story at HDC’s Victorville campus to more than 12,000 attendees of the multi-site church. After a brief introduction by one of the pastors, Paul Gostanian, Justin rolled onto the stage in his wheelchair, with Patrick following close behind. Justin introduced Patrick as his “BFF” and their comedic banter back and forth created a positive energy in the large auditorium, filling it with laughter while giving a glimpse of their unique friendship.
“When you have that much history, you share lots of stories,” Patrick said. “Especially when you’re hanging out with this guy ‘cause he’s got some pretty crazy ideas.”
But the lively room quieted as Justin began to tell the part of the story that explained why he spoke from a wheelchair.
When Justin was almost 16, he was in a serious car accident. The accident triggered a dormant progressive autoimmune disease called Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy (MAMA). The disease, similar to ALS, caused Justin’s autoimmune system to attack his nervous system, which sporadically shuts down, causing his muscles to atrophy. The disease itself doesn’t cause pain, and he still has full sensory awareness — and a full sense of humor — in spite of it.
“Justin has always been a glass-half-full kind of guy or what I think of as annoyingly positive,” Patrick says.
For a while, Justin could still do most things using a special brace. Over a period of years, he lost function of his feet and legs. His torso and arms remained unaffected.
Justin went to college and got married. He and Patrick remained close and continued to vacation together. Justin continued to do as much as his body allowed. Because his atrophy had been contained to his lower body, he could maintain a career as a talented graphic designer. But in 2010, he noticed a weakness in his right shoulder. It only took 45 days to lose over 70 percent of the use of his right arm. Eventually, Justin lost the use of all of his extremities.
‘The Deep Dark Hole’
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It sucked … what was left of my positive nature and my resilience was gone.”
At this point, the only sound in the room was coming from the stage. All eyes were on Justin and some people were even sitting on the edge of their seats, as Justin shared what he calls “the deep dark hole.”
“I realized I had two roads I could go down. I could take the easy route and take my own life and my wife and family wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore. That’s the easy way. Or I could make lemonade out of lemons. I could do the best I could every day, focusing on the blessings. I could keep moving through life and focus on the light,” Justin said. “I have never leaned so heavily on Christ and those around me. Slowly I was able to pull myself out.”
“I realized I had two roads I could go down. I could take the easy route and take my own life and my wife and family wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore. That’s the easy way. Or I could make lemonade out of lemons.”
Despite Justin’s return to his usual positive outlook, Patrick was still struggling. He was angry and bitter toward God.
“For two years, I fought a battle that Justin wasn’t fighting. I was praying for what he wasn’t praying for. I wanted a miracle. But sometimes the miracle isn’t divine intervention and healing, but the ability to face the unknown future with grace and dignity. Justin didn’t need a healing. He needed me to be his hands and feet. Now I see the privilege and honor it is to do this for my friend,” Patrick said.
Patrick says this revelation transformed and cemented their bond in friendship, bringing with it new possibilities in life.
The Wild Idea
Patrick and Justin had been looking for the perfect “guy trip” for quite some time. Justin described a lazy day in March 2012. He’d been channel surfing the TV when he landed on a travel channel story about the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage beginning about five miles across the French border, and ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. He knew immediately this was “the one.”
Justin then called to his wife of 17 years, Kirstin, to see what he was watching.
Without hesitation, she said, “Why not? If it’s something you want to do, then do it!”
Justin wondered what Patrick would think. Sure, they’d had their share of adventures over the years, but this one would top them all.
The Response: ‘I’ll Push You’
A few weeks later, while Patrick and his wife of 20 years, Donna, and their children were visiting, Justin showed him the recording of the Camino de Santiago.
After the recording ended, Justin asked Patrick, “So, do you want to go across 500 miles of northern Spain with me?”
Patrick’s response: “I’ll push you.”
And with that, the craziest idea they’d hatched yet became a reality as the two friends began to plan for their journey.
Remarkably, when Patrick explained the situation to his boss, he was given the six weeks off with only one stipulation: to do everything in his power to document the journey.
Patrick told Justin the good news and then in 2013, Justin and his family moved within a few blocks of Patrick’s family. While Patrick physically trained six days a week, Justin created a website to help raise money for the supplies such as a film crew, backpacks, and an off-road wheelchair.
With only a few short weeks before the trip, they began to train with Justin’s new wheelchair. Another friend, a firefighter and EMT named Ted Hardy, agreed to train and go to Spain for the first ten days.
Day one of the journey started with the daunting task of climbing the Pyrenees Mountains. After a while, the road became too rocky for the wheelchair. Placing Justin in a sling, Ted and Patrick carried him 10 to 15 feet at a time before needing to rest. At one point, they set him down while going to scout the trail ahead. As Justin laid with his eyes closed, he heard footsteps approaching.
“I open my eyes and I see a man standing over me, slapping me in the face!” Justin said as the room erupted in laughter. “Boy, he was so excited to see me. But he proceeds to tell me I must be a little crazy to do something like this,” he says with a mischievous grin.
Ted and Patrick return and they learn a little more about the man. Although the encounter was only four minutes, his impact has forever changed their lives and served as a mantra for the remainder of the journey. After a few minutes of conversation, the gentleman went on his way up the hill, then turned around briefly.
With hands raised high over his head, he hollered down to them, “The impossible is possible.”
Other pilgrims came along the way, sharing their stories and lending a helping hand all the while, transforming each other’s lives.
As Justin and Patrick continued to share about their journey, the story evolved into something familiar and yet at the same time extraordinary. Like the protagonists in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the men were thrust into an impossible situation to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal. But along the way, fate (faith) steps in by sending many others to help share the burden which forever changes all involved. Justin and Patrick, like Frodo and Sam, accomplish their goal together.
“The pilgrimage has taught me for sure, when you do step out in faith, watch out, because amazing things can really happen,” Justin said. He said he may not be able to do a lot, “but through the power of community I climbed mountains.”
The Journey Continues
“When you deny someone the opportunity to help, you deny them joy,” Justin said he learned. “But if you let them help, you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to do.”
Since the trip, the two have written a book and made a documentary about their journey, both titled I’ll Push You. The documentary will be out in theatres in November. They have founded Push, Inc. and are speakers for conferences and events, equipping audiences and organizations with the skills needed to do more together through the power of community.
“When you deny someone the opportunity to help, you deny them joy,” Justin said. “But if you let them help, you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to do.”
Patrick closed by saying, “The reality is, we all have mountains to face. The only way to face those effectively is through the provisions of God. We can be the provisions of God. People will know God’s love through us. Whoever we come in contact with, whatever their walk is, the greatest gift we can give them is to love them.”
For more information about I’ll Push You book and documentary, visit https://www.illpushyou.com