Patrick “Paddy” Gray and Justin “Skeez” Skeesuck can’t remember when they first became friends. They can’t remember a time without each other. They were born in the same hospital in July 1975, just two days apart.
The two boys grew up less than two miles apart in Oregon. They spent hours digging holes, building forts, playing, and imagining. As they grew, the boys were active in all kinds of sports. Patrick ran track and played baseball. Justin played soccer, but tennis was his first love.
The two boys graduated high school and went to college. They went to different schools but remained close friends. They were best man in each other’s weddings. They traveled through Europe together with their wives. They both had kids. And they kept having adventures.
One day, Justin told Patrick about a travel show he had watched about the Camino de Santiago, the “Way of Saint James.” Pilgrims on the Camino choose to hike along one of seven routes to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Justin was absolutely certain that he and Patrick needed to do the Camino—hiking the 500-mile French Way, which would take them over the Pyrenees Mountains. When Justin asked, Patrick thought for a minute. He looked at his friend, who sat in his motorized wheelchair. Then Patrick said, “I’ll push you.”
Justin wasn’t always in a wheelchair. When he was in his late twenties, doctors diagnosed Justin with a rare immune disease called multifocal acquired motor axonopathy (MAMA, for short). The doctors told him that the disease was probably dormant, or asleep, in his body but had been triggered by a traumatic event. Justin had been in a truck accident in 1991, thirteen years earlier, when he was almost sixteen.
Justin walked away from the accident but began to notice problems just a few months later. While playing soccer, his found that his left foot wasn’t moving as it should. Doctors thought the problem was physical and fitted Justin for a brace. Patrick joked with Justin and helped build his confidence.
Justin had to give up playing soccer but could still play tennis. The weakness in his foot then spread to the muscles in his lower leg.
By his freshman year in college, Justin gave his tennis racket to his sister when he couldn’t play anymore. He told Patrick, “At least I can still run.” Months later, Justin told Patrick that he had to give up running. His legs grew weaker, to the point where he needed a handicapped parking space because he couldn’t walk any distance.
The disease has now progressed to the point that Justin cannot walk or use his hands. He needs help to do nearly everything—eat, drink, shower, get dressed, and transfer in and out of his wheelchair.
As soon as he was diagnosed, Justin’s wife, Kirstin, told him that he needed to call Patrick. Since then, Patrick has been there for Justin and his family. The disease has taken a lot from Justin, but it does not take away his ability to think, to plan, and to dream big dreams.
As his illness progressed and limited what he was able to do, Justin was sometimes angry. Patrick was angry too. While Justin tried to remain positive and focus on what he could still do, Patrick’s anger and frustration over was happening to his friend grew. So it really wasn’t surprising when Justin suggested a five-hundred-mile journey through the mountains of France and Spain. And it probably was less surprising when Patrick agreed to Justin’s idea.
The two friends had to do a lot of prepare for the trip. First, they needed to get time off from work. The average pilgrim takes thirty to thirty-five days to walk the French Way. Justin and Patrick figured that they would need about six weeks to travel to France and complete their pilgrimage. Then they needed to find a special wheelchair sturdy enough to survive the trip. A local business paid for the three-wheeled chair after learning about the friends’ plan.
They also needed to find some help on the hike. Ted, a friend of Patrick’s and a firefighter, agreed to come for two weeks to help push and pull Justin over some of the hardest stretches on the Camino. They found a film crew that agreed to document their journey.
Patrick trained for weeks ahead of the trip. While he worked out, Justin designed a website to raise funds for the trip. Justin also got as healthy as he could for the trip, including eating well. Patrick and Justin and Ted trained together, going up steep hills and trying to get as ready as possible for the challenge ahead.
Justin and Patrick flew to France in May 2014 and began their pilgrimage a few days later. Justin and Patrick prepared as well as they possible could for the Camino, but there were some things that they could not predict. Just a few miles into their journey, for example, the front wheel on Justin’s wheelchair broke off, which could have ended the trip.
The journey was hard at times, both physically and mentally. At one point, Patrick looked at Justin, who almost always remained positive. Patrick thought about his life and wondered what was holding him back from living life as fully and positively as his friend.
Along the way, day after day, the two friends heard the word impassable a lot. People told them that there was no way they would make it over the mountains. But other pilgrims offered help so they could make it through the spots where the trail was rocky, muddy, or otherwise “impassable.” At some points, a dozen pilgrims would hoist Justin and his chair and haul him over tough patches and up and down steep hills.
Strangers became their friends. As they walked, many of the pilgrims shared stories about their lives. Justin and Patrick discovered that letting people help them was the best gift they could give. Justin writes, “I continue to find it humbling when someone offers help, and I have tried to make it a habit to always accept.”
With all of these people helping them and by their own strength, Justin and Patrick made it to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. But their journey didn’t end in Spain. Justin and Patrick now speak about their experience and organize accessible pilgrimages on the Camino. They also match traditionally abled hikers who volunteer to accompany pilgrims who have limited mobility. To find out more, visit www.illpushyou.com.
Written by Nicholle Check, Pax Christi parishioner and Communications Council Chair, for Pflaum Gospel Weeklies—a faith formation program for preschool through ninth grade. Read more below.
A Note from Nicholle Check
My parents, John and Nancy Paumen, joined Pax Christi in the very early years of the parish. I was confirmed here in 1985. My husband, Steve, and I joined the parish in 1997 after moving back to Eden Prairie. Both of our children—Anna (20) and Ben (17)—have received the sacraments here at Pax Christi.
My volunteer commitment to Pax Christi has changed over the years, depending on what was going on in our family. When my kids were little, for example, I brought brownies and salads for funerals. I also served on committees that met in the evenings—the 25th anniversary committee, the former Stewardship Council, and an art crawl that showcased the parish’s collection. I am currently the chair of the newly formed Communications Council, which means that I also serve on the Community Council.
I began serving as a catechist when my daughter started preschool. I taught either her class or my son’s for about ten years. I returned to full-time work in 2014. I’m now senior editor for the Pflaum Gospel Weeklies—a faith formation program for preschool through ninth grade. (I taught the Weeklies at Pax Christi for several years.)
As an editor, I write lessons and teaching plans based on the Sunday readings. Each lesson features a story or article that prepares students for the Sunday Gospel. The article titled “I’ll Push You” is based on a book of the same name. It is the story of two friends—one who is traditionally abled, the other confined to a wheelchair. The story will run in a lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Advent; the Gospel for that Sunday is the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). The two friends say “yes” to each other, as Mary says yes to God’s plan that she would be the mother of His Son.
Learn more about the story by watching this video: www.illpushyou.com. Does this title sound familiar? The Pax Christi book club chose I’ll Push You as its September 2020 selection. Watch our events calendar and eNEWS for upcoming book club Zoom events!
Photos courtesy of Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, illpushyou.com.