I’ll Push You
In 2010 Emilio Estevez starred in and directed his father, Martin Sheen, in the movie, “The Way.” Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who comes to France to collect the remains of his son, killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago. But instead of returning home, Tom sets out on the pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What he doesn’t realize is the profound impact the Camino will have on him as it has others over hundreds of years.
People flock to the “the way” in Spain for many different reasons every year. For some, it is a time of transition in their lives during which they are uncertain and tentative. Others have experienced great personal loss — the death of a child or a spouse — and are looking for meaning in their lives. I hear numerous reports from people who do it because they have a sense of leaving something unfinished, and walking the Camino gives them a sense of perhaps completing what is left undone in their lives. Needless to say, there is something about the trek that draws hundreds of thousands of people every year.
But until this week, I had not read any other accounts that have touched me like the story of two lifelong friends — Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray. Justin has been wheelchair bound for over 20 years and unable to move after a car accident triggered an autoimmune disease that has left him without the use of his limbs — including his hands. He is totally dependent on others for everything. Justin felt himself sliding into a dark depression about three years ago when he realized what his life had become.
“It’s very humbling to be in a position where you have to be bathed, you have to be helped going to the bathroom and having neighbors come over and pick you up off the floor when you’ve fallen down,” he told TODAY.com. “You start to question the purpose of being here, and I could see that darkness and for the first time knew how people could get to that point in their lives and just live in that darkness.”
One rainy, ugly day, a light went on. “I had the choice in my life to go down this road — or I could choose to make the best of it and reshape my life where I could still be an effective husband and father, where I could still achieve things,” Skeesuck said. “I chose not to go down that dark road.”
In the spring of 2012, Justin learned about the Camino de Santiago while watching Rick Steves on Public Access TV. Soon after, Justin asked his lifelong friend, Patrick, what he thought about tackling the ancient pilgrimage. Patrick’s response was simple and direct. He said, “I’ll push you.” Two years later, they started their journey with absolutely no idea how they would make the 500 miles from France to the Cathedral in Santiago.
And that is exactly what he and a team of others — some friends and many total strangers — did for six grueling weeks in Spain. They pushed, pulled, lifted and carried Justin the entire length of the Camino de Santiago. Not only that, they filmed the journey and are creating a documentary to use for raising awareness of this disease and encouraging other disabled travelers.
But, having watched the trailer several times now, for me it is not a documentary about a disease or even a tribute to the human spirit. It is a testament to an extraordinary friendship unlike any I have known in my life. Something in this story has captured my heart and mind. Franz Kafka said that a good story must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us and maybe that explains it. While there is nothing in my life in common with these men, I find myself going back to the story of Jesus healing the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends. It was the faith of his friends that caught the attention of Jesus — and has caught mine as well.
One of the lines in “The Way” sums up so much. Emilio Estevez says to Martin Sheen, “You don’t choose a life, dad. You live one.” Justin didn’t choose his life, but he is, more than many people I know, living one. What he did choose was to go in a way other than the dark road and in doing so, he has taken others with him. Justin chose life and his story has become, for me, the axe breaking up a frozen sea.