I've heard those words many times over the past few years.
"I'll push you," they say when I start to obsess on the days when my body says "No more, I simply can't do anymore."
I smile. I hope that it's true. I hope that this life I've chosen to live, a life of hope and faith and perseverance and miracles wrapped around a body labeled with the word "disabled" is never a life I have to give up because I simply can't push anymore.
It was in 1989 that I started my "journey," a 41-day and 1,086 mile wheelchair ride around the border of Indiana with a couple of zigzags tossed in just to make the route complete. I was a broken soul, not by the spina bifida that I was born with but by a life that had worn me out emotionally and physically and spiritually.
I had nothing. I felt like nothing. I'd even failed at suicide.
So, I began to wheel.
I was alone, a single paraplegic/double below-knee amputee in a wheelchair with a backpack on the chair, a handful of typewritten press releases, and a mere $20 in my pocket.
But, I wheeled.
If you're expecting some traditional film review of I'll Push You, you might as well quit reading now.
I would be incapable of such a review.
I have to be honest. I sobbed during I'll Push You. I'm not talking about moisture in the eyes or occasional tears. I'm talking about deep, primal sobs grounded in recognition and release and a life-changing purging of anxieties and fears and unresolved grief.
"I'll Push You is not my kind of film," I silently thought to myself as I avoided watching it and avoided watching it and avoided watching it.
Did I mention I avoided watching it?
I was afraid it would be condescending toward disability. I was afraid the film would portray Patrick, the film's potential sacrificial martyr, as almost saint-like. "Oh, how I hate this inspiration porn crap!," I recall exclaiming loudly to myself.
But then, I sat down and began to watch I'll Push You, the Audience Award winner for Documentary Feature at the 2017 Heartland Film Festival, and I began, even early in the film, to feel the tears welling up inside as I began to feel a kinship with the film's central characters, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck.
In the Spring of 2012, Justin learned about the Camino de Santiago while watching Rick Steves on Public Access TV. Shortly thereafter, Justin mentioned it to Patrick and asked him what he thought about tackling what is considered by many to be the ultimate sacred pilgrimage.
Patrick's response? "I'll Push you."
For two years, the lifelong best friends began to plan what would ultimately become a 35-day, 500-mile journey from the Southwest of France to the Cathedral in Santiago over several mountain ranges, such as the Pyrenees, through rivers, and across the Meseta, Spain's desert.
I'll Push You isn't a film about "overcoming" disability. I'll Push You isn't a film about disability at all really, though Justin was just a young married father with a newborn when the diagnosis of a progressive neuromuscular disease began changing his life the lives of his friends and family in profound ways.
I'll Push You, while immensely inspiring, is most definitely NOT inspiration porn.
I'll Push You is about friendship. I'll Push You is about the fact that it doesn't just take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to live our lives. For some, it takes a village to wake up, get dressed, take a shower, go to the bathroom, eat and do just about everything else in life. For others, it takes a village to learn to take risks, to let go, to be vulnerable, and to be loved.
We're all different, but we all need a village.
While most movies that center around the Camino de Santiago seem to inherently center around the individual journeys of its travelers, I'll Push You becomes a film about the sacredness of this irrevocable bond that we all share and the communal spirit makes the seemingly impossible become possible. While I'll Push You could have become yet another film about the selfless martyr helping someone with a disability achieve a dream, through the wise, insightful direction of co-directors Chris Karcher and Terry Parish it, at least for the most part, avoids such broad strokes and instead becomes an emotionally honest, transformative film that challenges all of us, whatever life challenges we face, we are not defined by our limitations and are better served by facing those limitations in community with one another.
While there's no question that I'll Push You is meant to inspire, neither Justin nor Patrick are portrayed through an angelic lens with their challenges, flaws and foibles given equal time along with those challenges faced by their families.
Justin's wife, Kirstin, speaks with honesty about the challenges of being a professional nurse then having to come home to be a young mother and both wife and caregiver to her increasingly challenged husband whose life transitioned from walking to a wheelchair to a motorized wheelchair and whose disease continues to become increasingly more challenging. Justin himself speaks eloquently, with both empowering insight and vulnerable confessions, about what it means to live in a body that requires physical dependence and yet offers relationship on an intimate level so rarely experienced these days.
Patrick, on the other hand, spent years as a fierce workaholic. In an early scene, his work supervisor acknowledges him as the one who will always do what he's asked and not quit until it's done. By film's end, we realize that Patrick has long possessed a need for hyper-control and his workaholic tendencies had, at least on some level, begun to hurt his relationship with his family.
While Justin's dream may have come true along the Camino de Santiago, I'd dare say that it was Patrick who truly benefited the most from the remarkable journey that demanded he learn to let go, learn to ask for help, and learn to be part of a village even with all its inherent risks.
In one scene in particular, and this one left me seriously sobbing, Patrick and Justin find themselves nearing the end of their journey while facing a seemingly impossible day's ascent given both the rapid incline and difficult, rocky path they must take. As they arrive in the town before the ascent begins, Patrick, in particular, is stunned to realize that other travelers have waited in the town for their arrival so that the difficult, perhaps impossible, ascent can be completed communally with each of the several walkers from all walks of life joyously doing whatever they can to make it possible.
There were so many other scenes that left me inspired, touched, motivated, inspired and, yes, deeply sobbing. To recount them all would be unfair when you can, in fact, see them for yourself when I'll Push You screens as a one-night only Fathom Event on Thursday, November 2nd at theaters across the country. It's a wonderful opportunity to see one of the year's most hearfelt, inspiring films and to also support the goal to raise at least $25,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
When I returned home from my first journey, a journey I called the "Tenderness Tour" because that's what I needed to most experience in my life, I was a forever changed human being. I went from being a deeply grieving widow and suicidal abuse survivor to figuring out how to get my act together by returning to college, finding a home, graduating college and leaving the world of disability payments for the workforce.
I also kept on touring, at least one journey each year for the past 28 years with over 5,000 miles logged by wheelchair. After six years of wheeling alone, my first road crew joined me from my workplace in 1996 and I've never traveled alone again with people joining me year after year after year to drive, support, plan events, and help with various other aspects of my life on the road.
In recent years, as I far outlive my life expectancy and begin to become more and more challenged by wheeling independently I've found myself silently wondering if my days on the road are numbered and I must face life without this sacred journey that has transformed me, my volunteers and countless others over the years.
Each time I outwardly express my doubts. Each time I express my fears, yet my desire to continue wheeling through the fears and through the exhaustion and through the increased need for a village, I inevitably hear one person say "I'll push you."
Perhaps, it is time to believe them.
A beautifully developed film whose characters, far beyond Patrick and Justin, you will fall in love with despite their relatively slight screen time including Ted Hardy, Michael Turner, Christy Taylor, both mens' families, and others, I'll Push You also features top notch production values including stellar lensing by J. Michael McLeod, strong visual effects by Kyle Hoekstra, and original music that was fun to listen to and perfectly woven into the fabric of the film.
When they returned from their own journeys, the two men, especially Patrick, pledged to live their lives differently and began doing so. Long the workaholic, Patrick ended up leaving his demanding, high stress job in an effort to spend more time with his wife and children. He and Justin started Push, Inc. where they help organizations and individuals realize they can achieve more together.
Think about it. Who would you push?
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic