Eight years ago, Rob and Laura Sobiech walked through the hardest valley any parent ever could: They buried their second-youngest child.
Zach, who died at age 18 in 2013, had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare children’s bone cancer.
Their journey began in November 2009, when they took Zach for an MRI. He had already had an X-ray on his leg, but was in persistent pain. The MRI found a tumor the size of a plum.
“That night, Zach had a guitar lesson and decided to go. That’s how he faced cancer,” Laura recalled.
As she sat in their living room, “My thoughts were all over the place. I knew God was in the room. It felt like being outside, eyes closed, and I could feel the sun on my face. I felt tremendous peace. God was waiting for an answer: ‘Will you do this? And do you trust Me?’”
“It was like Peter in John’s Gospel,” she said. “I felt like this was what I had been preparing for my whole life. I felt like the rich man in today’s Gospel, being asked to do this hard thing.”
Last month, Rob and Laura shared their journey with parishioners and guests at St. Joseph Church in Hanover. Coincidentally, the Gospel reading that very day, Oct. 11, was Mark 10:17-30, in which Jesus instructs a rich man to sell what he has, give to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven. Scripture tells us the young man goes away sad because he has many possessions.
“Our story is a very Catholic story,” Laura reflected. “It’s a story about deep suffering and how God used suffering to channel grace into the world. We’re a very ordinary family and Zach was a very ordinary boy.”
God Has Something in Store
“It’s a big statement, to say that Zach changed the world, but it’s true. Every day, someone reaches out to tell me how Zach’s story has helped them,” she added.
After the diagnosis, “it was chaos,” Laura said. Everything had turned on a dime. For starters, she began homeschooling Zach.
In mid-December 2009, she and Zach were home. She recalled praying, “Lord, what is this? What are you asking us to do?’” She asked Zach, “What do you think God’s up to?”
“He said, ‘I don’t know, Mom, but I think it’s something big,’ and he said it with awe, not with ego.
In July 2010, Zach finished chemotherapy and went for follow-up CT scans. There were lesions throughout his lungs; the bone cancer had spread.
Rather than being discouraged, Zach decided every single day to choose joy and to find something to be grateful for, Laura recalled.
“For two-and-a-half years, we lived from CT scan to CT scan,” hoping for good news. Finally, a scan in his last year of life told them how much time they had left.
The day they sat in the hospital to get those results, Laura looked up to see Zach laughing so hard he had tears running down his face. He’d downloaded a “fat booth” app, in which you take an unflattering photo of someone and the app exaggerates the features to absurd proportions.
“He could find joy no matter what,” she said. “And what is joy? It’s finding good in the midst of all that suffering. Because of Christ’s love and grace, life is good.”
In May 2012, the Sobiechs went as part of a group of 11 people to Rome and Lourdes. “Walking past the Louvre, I could see that he was in pain,” she said.
Back in the states, after months of tests, a PET scan revealed that Zach had about a year left to live. His pelvis was riddled with cancer.
“Parenting a dying child is a terrifying endeavor,” she said. That summer, for the first time, Zach verged on despair. “His friends leaned in, but he was very lonely.”
“Zach was looking for wisdom, and my deep prayer as his mother was, ‘I don’t know how to teach him to die.’ I was screaming in my head, asking for the words, and every time, they would come,” Laura recalled of leaning on her faith.
“I was wrestling with God. I didn’t even know what to pray for. There are no more options. How do I hope?” she said. During one of those times of prayer, God gave her a vision that “it was okay to focus on eternity.”
“I wrestled with prayer. I wanted a miracle, I wanted a cure, but I also wanted to follow God’s will. It was like Jesus with the Agony in the Garden. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three writers record that Jesus prayed to God to let the cup of death pass from him, yet he was reconciled to God’s will: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:36).
“I said to God, ‘I want Zach here, but I want your will more. But I want Zach’s suffering to mean something,’” she said.
Creating a Legacy
In the summer of 2012, Laura began to prepare her then 17-year-old son to die. “I wanted to prepare him to say goodbye. Dying is awkward, it’s clunky, it’s hard.”
At the time, a local radio station was doing its annual radiothon to raise money for childhood cancer research. The station reached out to the family and asked if Zach would be a guest on the show. Zach jumped at the chance, telling his family he wanted to do whatever he could to help other children.
The DJ asked Zach to bring his guitar, and asked him to play and sing.
In late September/early October, the radio station called again to ask Zach if he knew another song. When Laura heard the lyrics to his song ‘Clouds,’ she knew that was how Zach was going to say good-bye.
The radio station loved it and offered to record it professionally. They made a video, which later went viral with more than 2 million hits. At the radiothon in December, Zach sang his song live and gave an interview. That led to the documentary, “My Last Days,” which followed the Sobiech family for five days in February 2013.
At the Varsity Theatre in Lakeland, Minn., Zach played to a sold-out show, performing his song live on stage. Laura and Rob watched him soak it up, knowing what this meant to their son.
A scan at the time had revealed an 8 cm bone tumor rubbing between his lungs and ribs, making every breath painful for Zach.
On May 20, 2013, just 11 days shy of his 19th birthday, Zach Sobiech passed away. Amidst the waves of grief, Laura recalled it was “like flood gates of God’s grace” washing over her.
More than 5 million people watched the video of Zach. More than 1,200 people attended his funeral. During his visitation, the song “Clouds” climbed the charts, reaching the #1 spot on iTunes just four days later – during Zach’s funeral Mass.
Royalties from the song and the documentary have raised more than $3 million for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma fund at Children’s Cancer Research Network.
“How did this dying boy affect so many people? By binding his suffering with Christ,” Laura said. His story resonated with so many because of the grace with which he lived and ultimately died.
The Sobiechs were offered a book deal, so Laura spent the summer after Zach’s death writing his story.
“Our story is truly about a loving God and how he’s used us. We are so average, and God was able to use us. There is so much power in suffering. When we united with Christ, this happens all the time, but we don’t get to see it,” Laura said.
‘It’s God’s Deal’
In the audience at St. Joseph’s to listen to Laura and Rob’s story were Tom and Patty Strunck, longtime parishioners.
“It was very touching,” Patty said. In 2009, at age 14, their daughter Mary was diagnosed with leukemia. Hearing the Sobiechs’ story, “hit me in the heart,” Tom said. Through their daughter’s treatment, Mary took time to meet other children also suffering from cancer.
Now nearly 27, Mary is in remission. Her treatment ended in 2012. “Her journey was very similar,” Patty said. “When your child has a cancer diagnosis, you enter the world of death and cancer. It’s very cold.”
One of the side effects of Mary’s treatments was neuropathy, a damage in a nerve ending that results in numbness, tingling and pain. Mary chose to offer all her pain up for her parish priest.
“It was a very holy time for us. It’s like you grow exponentially in your faith,” Tom said.
For all parents facing a child’s diagnosis of any kind of illness, especially cancer, the greatest challenge is the unknown.
“Things happen that we don’t understand, but they are opportunities that allow us to progress in our journey to heaven,” Rob Sobiech said.
“I got close to despair. Through prayer, I learned that this was not my thing to fix. It was very difficult, but you have to learn to give up control,” he added.
In the fall of 2013, the Sobiechs got their first request to speak about Zach, at an event in Red Deer, Canada, to some 900 people. For Laura, “this is part of the sacrifice. I said, ‘Lord, if you want it, open the door. If you open the door, I’ll walk through it.’”
Rob and Laura Sobiech visited Hanover at the invitation of Deacon Tom Aumen, who has been a deacon at St. Joseph’s for 11 years. He’s been attending the parish his whole life, more than 40 years.
“I saw the movie during the pandemic,” he said, and knew instantly he wanted to invite them to St. Joe’s. He hoped that their story would spread the message about God and faith, and how their faith was tested and strengthened as they watched their son die.
(Lauren Gross is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness.)
By Lauren Gross, Special to The Witness