John Fuller: Imagine pushing a wheelchair and hiking 500 miles across mountains and valleys and plains with your best friend. It’s a compelling movie plot, I know, but it’s a true story as well. And, uh, our guests are going to share their story today on “Focus on the Family.” Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, the book of Ecclesiastes says two are better than one because if one falls, the other can pick them up. I love that. In sticking with the Author, you think of David and Jonathan, a friendship that had deep bonds. I think a lot of men miss that kind of relationship. Often, when there’s surveys done, men will say they don’t have a close friend. Today, we’re gonna talk to two people that are very close. And they have a friendship that I think, uh, many people will want to implement. Friendships like this just are rare. That’s the fact. Uh, the two men with us today, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, uh, have a friendship I think we’d all like to have, one where they have continued to help each other, both physically and spiritually. Patrick and Justin have written an awesome book called I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.
Patrick and Justin, welcome to “Focus on the Family.”
Justin Skeesuck: Thanks for having us.
Patrick Gray: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Jim: Wow. Where to get started? Hearing that book title makes me feel inspired. That’s the bottom line. It’s just such, again, a message of friendship and partnership, and going through something like that together. Let’s start with the idea. How did you come up with this idea of going to Europe? Describe the journey. I’ve heard of this journey before, but what’s it about?
Justin: So, let’s start with the idea. And it’s all - it’s all my fault. Patrick blames me.
Jim: OK, good. So...
Patrick: I really do blame him.
Justin: He’s glaring at me right now. No, he’s not. But, I learned about it in the spring of 2012. It was just a nondescript Saturday morning, just minding my own business. And my wife is doing what she could to keep the house moving along. And I just found myself watching public access television. And along comes this travel guy on the show and talking about northern Spain - Pamplona, running of the bulls, if you’re familiar with that.
Justin: And this pilgrimage, called the Camino de Santiago. There’s different routes you could take. But in particular, the one - it’s - it’s a 500-mile pilgrimage. It starts in the southwest corner of France.
Justin: I just... something inside of me - it’s hard to explain. I just knew. I just knew I needed to do it.
Jim: Now, Justin, for people that aren’t visually connected to where we’re at...
Jim: ...You’re sitting in a wheelchair.
Jim: Describe what has happened to you.
Justin: I have a progressive neuromuscular disease, and it’s called multifocal acquired motor axonapathy. I know it’s a mouthful.
Jim: Similar to ALS.
Justin: Very similar to ALS. It started in my left foot, when my - just basically just worked its way up my body. And now, I’m in a - in a power wheelchair, where I have to be - I can’t use my arms or my legs, and I have to be, basically, cared for, from the moment I get up in the morning, until I go to bed at night. So feeding, bathroom, showering, clothes on, the whole deal.
And it was triggered by a car accident, when I was...
Jim: Is that right?
Justin: ...About 16. Yeah.
Jim: So, something in you just triggered, uh...
Justin: So I was just...
Jim: ...A neurological response.
Justin: ...Genetically dispositioned - or positioned to have it.
Justin: Predispositioned, yes, thank you, to having it. And I just happened to have a sequence of events that triggered it.
Jim: Now, let me bring Patrick in. You guys grew up together. Is that right?
Patrick: Yeah, we did. We, uh...
Jim: And how long have you known each? When did you first become friends? What age?
Patrick: That’s really hard to delineate, because we were born 36 hours apart in the same hospital hours. So we don’t...
Jim: So, you count hours, not years. (laughter)
Patrick: We don’t have, like, a point of reference for a time where we didn’t know each other.
Jim: So, you’ve always known each other.
Patrick: Always known each other.
Jim: Grew up in a small town..
Patrick: Ontario. Eastern Oregon - yeah, Eastern Oregon...
Patrick: ...Tiny town. Gosh, we were born. I think it was about seven or 8,000 people. It’s grown to a whopping 12,000 now. And, yeah, we grew up, building forts in fields, riding dirt bikes, causing trouble.
Jim: When did the disease - when was the accident? When did your legs begin to fail you? How old were you?
Justin: It started when I was just about 16.
Jim: So 16.
Jim: Still in high school.
Justin: And I’m 43 now. So...
Jim: And - OK...
Justin: That’s when it all...
Jim: ...So that’s when it began. How long of a period of time was the progression to where you had to have a wheelchair?
Justin: About six months after I had the car accident, I started noticing weakness in my left foot. So that’s when the progression started. And then it was a continual slow progression from there. And it was a pretty slow progression up until about 2010. And, 2010 is when it was pretty much to my waist and below. Um, and then it jumped to my - my upper body. And that time of my life it was very difficult. It was about 40 days or so, I’d lost about 60 to 70 percent of my upper body. So my arms and my hands went really quick...
Jim: Yeah. Well, and our heart goes out to you in that regard. And we can’t explain these things. And we’re going to get to that, and especially how the two of you dealt with your relationship with God in that regard. I think it’s very insightful.
And it says a lot about you, Justin, because some of that attractiveness has to come from you - that you’re willing to talk about it, you’re willing to be real with it, you’re humble enough to say, hey, can you scratch my forehead, right?
Justin: (Laughter) yeah.
Jim: I mean, that...
Patrick: You’re going to itch now, aren’t you?
Jim: Yeah, sorry I brought that up.
Justin: (Unintelligible). Thanks.
Jim: But, I mean, that - I mean, that is part of it. And you’ve got to manage that well, because if you become bitter, which I think most people would say you have every right to be that way - I don’t know that that’s theologically accurate. I’d love to hear from you about that. But that bitterness can be easy, and then you take it out on everybody around you, and then you don’t have this kind of friendship. So, I applaud you because it starts with you.
Justin: Thank you - appreciate that.
Jim: And then, talk about that and how that makes you operate and feel.
Justin: Um, I’d probably say the biggest thing that I’ve had - that I’ve worked on throughout my entire life - and I’m still working through it, so it’s not like I just check it off, and then I’m good - is I constantly lean on my relationship with Christ. And seeking His heart. And where, I just meditate on that. Okay, where do You want me to go? What is the best way to navigate through this situation?
Jim: Can I...
Jim: Can I interrupt?
Jim: And I want you to...
Jim: ...Pick up there. But I’m thinking of the person listening that may be able-bodied, maybe they have a physical limitation, but they have something in their life that’s an obstacle, and they’ve found it difficult to do what you’re suggesting. Can I ask you to be specific in how you lean into Christ? What - what do you gain in that relationship with the Lord every day? Is that that buoyancy, the resiliency, the positiveness?
Justin: All of that.
Jim: Describe it.
Justin: All of it. I focus very intensely on what I’m grateful for in life.
Justin: So, throughout my life, I’ve had to give up a lot of things I cherish. I used to be an avid sports - like, play tennis and soccer. I’ve had to give up... I mean, now, simple things like eating and getting my clothes on every day.
Jim: Hugging your kids.
Justin: Hugging my kids.
Jim: Just hugging.
Justin: Hugging my my kids, hugging my wife. But, what I’ve done throughout all of that is, as I’m praying and focusing on what I’m grateful for in life. It’s - in some way, when you let God in to that conversation, there’s a peace that will come over you. You have to be willing to go there. You have to be willing to open yourself up, and more importantly, let other people in...
Justin: ...Like Patrick...
Justin: ...My wife, my kids, other people that are in my life that I can lean on, that show me God’s love in this world.
Jim: And this was a process for you. It doesn’t happen overnight. I mean, you even had, you know, the thoughts of, should I take my life?
Justin: Yeah. I mean, I’ve - I’ve had some very dark moments in my life. And, it’s not a place I want to go back to, I can tell you that right now.
Justin: But, what I can tell you is, that when you focus intensely on God’s will and God’s heart, and you seek it - you seek it out - it will take a while, but slowly, but surely the light will become brighter...
Justin: ...And brighter...
Jim: When I’m...
Justin: ...And brighter.
Jim: ...Thinking of that scripture where Paul writes as instruction to Timothy about suffering leading to endurance, leading to character, leading to hope - hope in Christ - you’re living it. I mean, you’ve lived - and still live in that suffering. It’s given you endurance. You’re extremely resilient. I could see it as soon as you came into the studio. It’s beaming from you...
Justin: Oh, thanks.
Jim: ...Your resiliency.
Justin: It’s the coffee.
Jim: And then it...
John: Well, that helps.
Jim: I don’t think so. And it’s that character to say, Lord, I’m willing - I mean, ironically, if I can use the words, I’m willing to walk this for you, even though you cannot walk...
Jim: ...And then to hope - hope in Christ that someday you will again, in heaven.
Justin: Yeah. You know, there was a moment in my life where the light switched for me. And I was - it was the very last day I was able to drive a car. My legs were giving out, and I - between my car and my front door of my house was maybe about 15-20 feet, and I fell six, seven, eight times. And I had to crawl to the front door of my house. I remember sitting on my front porch and just looking up at the stars and just saying, OK, God, like, this is - if this is the path that I’m on, You got to show me the way. You’ve got to show me where You want me to go in this life, and I’ll be patient. I will wait. But You have to show me.
John: That’s Justin Skeesuck. And, uh, he and Patrick Gray have written a book - he just mentioned it - I’ll Push You: A Journey Of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair. You can get the book at focusonthefamily.com/radio. Or call us, uh, if you want that, or if you need some encouragement. We’re on a pretty tender part of life here. And, uh, we have caring Christian counselors. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Justin, I - I appreciate the set-up, really, because - and the tenderness in which you speak. And, Patrick, your love for Justin is so apparent as well. Let’s get to the journey and start talking about the things learned in the journey. How did you prepare for this? How did that conversation go - we haven’t really gotten to that - when...
Jim: ...He approached you and said, “Hey, will you push me...
Patrick: It was...
Jim: ...500 miles?”
Patrick: It was a very...
Jim: Like, what?!
Patrick: It was a very candid conversation. What actually happened is he recorded this episode he referenced earlier. And my wife and I and our kids were down in San Diego visiting for spring break. He said, “Hey, I want to show you something.”
Patrick: So kids are out back playing. Our wives were chatting somewhere in the house. And it’s just Justin and I sitting watching this episode. And we watched it pretty much in silence. And at the end of the episode, he turned to me. And he said, “Hey, so you want to go across 500 miles of Northern Spain with me?” And I just processed it for maybe two or three seconds and just said, “Yeah, I’ll push you.” That was it. There was no other response. Now, that was a statement made out of a remarkable amount of naivety (laughter).
Jim: (Laughter) Yeah, right?
Justin: On both parts.
Patrick: On both parts, yeah.
Patrick: And then it kind of sat for a while. It sat for a long time.
Patrick: But, what really was kind of that - I would say the fuel for the fire to get us on the journey and then have training start, was a conversation I had with my boss. And I said to him - his name is Ed - I said, “Ed, I need six weeks off next summer.” And he, - he wasn’t real thrilled about the request, to say the least. But once he asked why and I explained the scenario, he got excited. He got really excited.
Jim: Oh, that’s good.
Patrick: And he said, “OK, here’s the deal. I’m going to do everything in my power to give you the time off, as long as you guys do everything in your power to film it.”
Jim: Oh, wow.
Patrick: And when I asked him, OK, why? (Laughter).
Patrick: That’s an odd request. He said, “Because if you don’t, you’re selfish and irresponsible. There’s too much hope not to share.”
Jim: Because he was already thinking ahead.
Patrick: Yeah. He’s - he was way ahead of the game. And so, 12 months, essentially, of training. We get over there. And first day, right out the gates, we’re climbing the Pyrenees mountain range, and we were not even remotely ready.
Jim: After a year of training?
Patrick: Even after a year of training, yeah.
Jim: That’s kind of daunting.
Justin: To give your listeners some perspective, with me, the weight of the chair and gear is about 250 pounds.
Jim: Oh, my goodness.
Justin: So it’s - it’s heavy.
Jim: So, what encounters did you have with the folks along the way? I mean, obviously, these are people also making this pilgrimage. They’re there - many of them - for spiritual reasons. They’re trying to get closer to Christ. This is what they do. And I’ve read many accounts of people that have had tremendous spiritual growth doing this. Did people stop and ask you, what are you guys doing or - how did people respond to you?
Justin: Of course.
Patrick: Oh, yeah. We were quite the anomaly.
Jim: And, of course, you’re Americans. Oh, Americano.
Justin: We have lots of funny stories - we have lots of stories we could tell you, but um, do you want to chime in, or?
Jim: What are they? I want to hear ‘em.
John: Pick a few, yeah.
Patrick: Right out of the gates, the very first interchange we had with one of the locals, as we’re on day one, we’re getting ready to leave. This gal comes out. She picks up our, our dishes from breakfast at this little cafe. She’s walking back inside, and she’s talking to us like, what are you guys doing here? We’re doing the Camino. She says, “In that? No, you’re not.” She just walks away. Like, OK. Like - they - like right out the gates, awesome.
Jim: But that didn’t finish off your zeal.
Justin: No, no.
Jim: That’s so awe…That was great.
Patrick: Not at all. It’s just more fuel to the fire. So we would just try - you know, set out to tackle this whole journey, with really not understanding why. We just knew we were supposed to be there. And, a lot of the why’s kind of, you know, I would say, unfolded as the journey unfolded. And it was that way for a lot of people we met.
And for us, what was so amazing about this whole journey is that after that first, like, negativity, you know, from this cafe gal, we met so many people from all walks of life, all faith backgrounds, you name it, that saw what was going on, stepped in and said, “Hey, what are you guys doing? Can I help?” I mean, how can you say no to that? Someone steps in and wants to offer help. But, what was interesting is that I’m a person who - I don’t like help a whole lot. I’m kind of...
Jim: OK. So your pride’s leaking into this a little bit.
Patrick: My pride got wrecked on this whole trek. I mean, there is no question.
Jim: So, did Justin teach you a little bit about laying down your pride?
Patrick: I would say - I would say he was the facilitator.
Patrick: But the journey itself is actually what taught me. The struggle and the pain of the journey itself is what actually opened my eyes to so much of what we can do as individuals, or what we should do as individuals.
Jim: Justin, as Patrick’s friend, and somebody who has to lay down their pride every day, did you see that happening in him? Could you sense it?
Justin: I can see it. I knew he needed it.
Justin: And, you know, he had a career that was really sucking the life out of him. But I - I couldn’t force that upon him. I needed him to recognize it. So, it was my job to love him through it and to just be there for him, if he wanted to talk about it.
Justin: Simple as that.
Jim: But again, in your friendship, what wonderful things you can learn from each other..
Jim: ...in that way. You know, so often, I feel like when you have a setback - physically, emotionally, whatever it might be, you feel worthless, right? And, there’s so much people can learn from people who are suffering in that way. And that’s one of the areas able-bodied people need to open our eyes. And it sounds like on the trip, that was happening every day.
Patrick: Every day.
Justin: Every day it was an adventure.
Jim: Pick out a couple of those things that just really stand out for you that were spiritual moments. I mean, that’s one. But are there other episodes along that - six weeks, did you finish in six weeks?
Patrick: It’s actually five weeks.
Justin: Five weeks - took us 35 days.
Jim: So your boss was happy. You made it back.
Patrick: Yeah, I made it back on time. And then I quit six months later.
Jim: You were exhausted.
Patrick: Yeah. No. He actually saw that coming. He knew that I wasn’t coming back for good.
I would say that the most profound spiritual piece of this entire journey was - to kind of piggyback on what Justin was saying about my career. What happened, is we were in this stretch of desert, really. It’s called the Meseta. And it’s about 150 miles of just - I would compare it to Kansas, just wheat fields, as far as you can see. And maybe some of the listeners can relate to this - when you get in a spot where really all the distractions of life are stripped away, you kind of come face-to-face with who you really are.
Jim: That’s what that journey does.
Patrick: That’s what it does. That’s what it does. Especially in the Meseta, because you had the same landscape day in and day out. There’s no change. I mean, it’s the same hills, the same trees. It just - like - so that - you don’t get distracted. And before I know it, I’m coming face-to-face with exactly who I am, versus who I want to be. And the only way I can describe it is like a million little tiny TV screens behind my eyes are going all at once. And I see every moment in this past four or five years in this job that I’m in of where I have been dismissive to my kids. I’ve been unkind to my wife. (emotion) I’m going to get tearful here, where I’ve failed my family over and over and over and over and over.
And one instance, one situation is - you can kind of explain it away. You can justify it. It was a bad day, whatever it might be. But to have all that hit you at once, I just wept. Just, I mean, I just wept. So we hurried to the next town because I want to try to get my family on Skype ‘cause we had an iPad with us - try to find someplace with Wi-Fi. Fortunately, my family answers the call. My kids are there. I apologize to them for who I’ve been. And they’re young enough where they’re like, “We forgive you, Dad” and they’re out. Like, you know, they’re so forgiving.
Jim: What are you talking about, Daddy?
Patrick: Right. Yeah. But then it’s just my wife and I.
Patrick: And... I’m going to see if I can get through this. I said to her, (EMOTION) “I’m sorry for all the times I’ve broken your heart, and I know there have been many.” And her response, that just floored me was, “If you never broke my heart, how would I learn to love you more?” And I... like I was sitting there thinking, like, what a great example for the love that God has for us.
Patrick: Like, in spite of who we are. He doesn’t love the good. He loves us in spite of the bad. And, like, my wife is loving me, in spite of who I am. That’s the same love that we’re supposed to impart upon our kids. We’re supposed to love them in spite of who they are. Every single relationship is an opportunity to love people in spite of who they are. And it’s through those kind of relationships that we get to know the intensity of God’s love, because we’re his hands and feet. Period. And it’s through us that people know who He is. And it was just like - OK. I get it. I get it.
Jim: That’s a lesson. That’s worth the journey.
Patrick: Oh, yeah. Oh, right there, that alone.
Justin: It changed his life.
Patrick: How about you, Justin? What was that impact for you?
Justin: On a spiritual level, um, I already talked about my change on my front porch. So I had already given up everything to God on that moment. So that was a couple of years prior to going on this pilgrimage. And so, for me, it was just a reconfirmation that there’s so much good in this world. And unfortunately, we just hear so much on a daily basis of things that are not going so well in this world. And the horror and the atrocities that are happening. But yet, going through this pilgrimage just reminded me that there are so many good people doing so many amazing, beautiful things. And, it just re-centered me on that - my faith in humanity was restored.
Jim: What did it feel like to come to the end of the road - literally?
Patrick: For us, the end was the center of the square at the base of the cathedral.That’s where we were...
Jim: St. James Cathedral.
Patrick: St. James Cathedral, yeah. But at the center of this massive square, there’s a stone that marks kind of the end point. And our wives were actually waiting at the center of the square.
Jim: Oh, that’s great.
Patrick: Hadn’t seen them in, you know, five weeks, maybe a little more. And you come into the square. And the only way we can describe it is it’s like - what we would picture dying and going to heaven like. Because here all these pilgrims who have helped us in various chapters of this journey who made it to Santiago before us, and they’re cheering us in. And applauses and whoops and hollers and complete strangers coming up and give me hugs and kisses. It was just electric and so emotional on a level that I’ve never experienced something that intense before, where you just feel like, OK, God, I don’t know where you take this, but this is just the beginning. This is just the start of something. And we’re ready. We’re ready.
Jim: That is so good. Patrick, I’m sure that watching your friend suffer in some ways - obviously, Justin does a great job getting through life, each and every day - but it did make you question God.
Patrick: Oh, yeah.
Jim: And in the book, you mentioned that. How you went to the mat, frustrated that God has not healed Justin. Describe that fight for your friend, between you and God.
Patrick: Someone told me a long time ago that God is big enough for anything you feel, so feel it all. And there’s a lot of wisdom in that. And this time in my life, when Justin had - it was actually 2010, when he lost the use of his hands. He was kind of going down a dark hole when he was having those thoughts of should I take my life and pulling himself out of this darkness. I kind of went down my own little dark hole.
Jim: And you were talking about it together?
Patrick: Yeah. Oh, yeah, we communicated. But I - I kind of - my hole I didn’t share with Justin for a long time. But I started praying fervently for healing, for intercession on my friend’s behalf, or something to happen where he would have his hands and feet back. And I prayed like that for two years. And the longer there was no answer, the more angry I became. And I cannot tell you how many times I yelled at, swore at, broke things in anger and frustration at God. I was furious. I was so, so angry. And my - my faith was really shaken. And it was like that for two years kind of going down this path of still going to church, engage with my family. But I, like, Who are You to fail my friend? How dare you thrust this upon him, kind of mentality. And that anger fuels more of that anger.
Two years later, Justin and his wife and kids are up in Idaho, and we are - it’s actually after church service. A gentleman who was, of all things, our youth pastor, as kids is now pastor of, at this church.
He takes Justin aside, and they have this very intense conversation. And it’s not intense, as in anger-filled, just very - it’s very important. You know, those conversations where you know something is really weighty going on here. And, I always joke, but actually - this actually happened. I was curious, and so I eavesdropped on the conversation, because I wanted to know what was going on. And the gentleman asked Justin, “If you knew you could have your hands and feet back right now and be made, quote, unquote, “whole,” would you choose it?” And I’m thinking that’s a stupid question. Like, of course, right? But Justin said, “No, I would not.” So, in that moment, I’m thinking, wait a minute. I’ve been looking at this all wrong. I’ve been fighting a fight that Justin hasn’t been fighting. I have put my stake in the ground. God, this is what has to happen, without actually understanding what was happening right around me. Because the miracle already happened. It wasn’t about having hands and feet back. It was about embracing this struggle with grace and dignity. That’s a miracle.
So, this kind of paradigm shift happened in my brain, where I’m like, OK, Justin’s in a battle that’s so different than what I saw. He just needs me to step in and be hands and feet, not pray for healing. I get the privilege to be the hands and feet that I want him to have back. And that was like, OK. Alright, God. I’m in. I’m in. I get it. And when that happened - I mean, this is before for the journey. When that happened, there was a cementing in our relationship that occurred that had never been there. And it’s - when we talk about deep male friendships that are rare, we didn’t realize that what we have is an anomaly, because we’ve always taken that for granted until recently, where we start to understand that, man, there is so many people out there that want that intimacy and that engagement and to have a wiring in their brain where they pursue each other, with almost reckless abandon, like we want to live life together. That’s the intensity to which Jesus calls us to love others.
Patrick: And, I missed it.
Jim: No, but you got it, in the end. I mean, that’s what matters. And, man, this has been so good. Justin, I have appreciated getting the opportunity to meet you and..
Justin: Thank you.
Jim: ...just to be near you. I love your effervescence and your commitment to Christ. And, Patrick, you too. And what God has taught both of you along this journey of life even though we’ve concentrated on 500 miles of your life. But, it was a moment for you guys. And in your book, I’ll Push You, what a wonderful story of friendship, of hardship, of anger, and struggling, and of overcoming these things. It’s a great inspirational story.
Let me say to you, the listener, that we’re here for you at “Focus on the Family.”
I know that Justin and Patrick would love to get their book into your hands, and we’ll be that mechanism for them. Ask for the book from us, because it’s a powerful story. A story of human redemption. Of overcoming those really difficult obstacles, and doing it with a smile for the Lord. And that’s what I love about it. It’s infectious.
And if I could ask you, support the ministry, here. Hearts are being reached and changed every day through the broadcast messages like this one, and the follow-up support from caring Christian counselors here at Focus on the Family. And they, they provide that initial help to those who are struggling, and then we’re able to point them in a direction to get even further help in their community.
There are people, today, who are in a difficult spot. They’re in a dark place, where Justin was. They need godly encouragement, and hope, that we, together, can provide them. And you are that catalyst to make it happen, um, through the resources that we provide together.
Please make a monthly pledge of any amount and to say thank you, I’ll send you a copy of the book, I’ll Push You. And together we can move people closer to the heart of God.
Justin, we appreciate your story. Keep goin’, because you inspire other people. And Patrick, thank you for demonstrating what friendship is all about. We see it in your friendship with Justin. Thank you, both, for modeling that for us.
Justin: Thanks, Jim. Thanks, John.
Patrick: Yeah. Thanks, guys.
John: And you’ll want to get a copy of that book, I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair. You’ll find that at focusonthefamily.com/radio. Or call 800-232-6459. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.
On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to “Focus on the Family.” I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.