“There is no joy like that which is experienced in the midst of intense suffering.”
Laura Sobiech knows that firsthand, having walked through her son Zach’s osteosarcoma battle with him until he died at age 18 in 2013. In fact, she marveled at the faith, grace, and love with which he conducted himself through the entire ordeal. And she still finds joy in the hit song “Clouds,” which Zach left behind, inspiring Laura’s memoir of the same name, as well as the Christopher Award-winning Disney Plus movie “Clouds.”
Laura joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to share her memories of Zach and the deep, spiritual lessons she learned from him.
“Zach was the kind of kid who drew people together,” recalled Laura. He had close relationships with each of his three siblings and was simply “an easy kid to parent.” His years at St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater, Minnesota, included a supportive class that increased his natural sense of empathy and who cheered him on when he played guitar on stage for the first time.
Zach’s cancer diagnosis at age 14 was a shock to the whole family, but he responded to it with a maturity beyond his years. Laura said, “He had to go deep in how he felt about things at an early age. And I think he intuitively knew that focusing inward led to despair. Because when we focus inward, we tend to focus on the things we’re losing and our suffering…He learned quickly that when you do that, you get down real fast – that it was a healthier thing spiritually and mentally to focus on others.”
During his time at the Children’s Hospital at the University of Minnesota, Zach shared rooms with other kids his age and even younger than him, some of whom were worse off. This also increased his capacity for empathy – and led to feelings of gratitude for the healthy and loving childhood he had experienced with his family.
Zach’s illness also led to him discussing deep topics with his classmates, questions about what this life is all about and what happens after we die. Though Zach was a fun kid, noted Laura, he could also be contemplative and came to believe that God would accomplish some greater good through his suffering.
Laura explained, “The unique part of our story isn’t that we had a child with cancer. Families lose children every day. I think the unique part of our very Catholic story was that we got to see God’s economy with suffering and grace rise above the surface… Zach saw this too. When we give our suffering over to God and allow Him to use it as a channel of grace into the world, He can touch lives, He can change lives…I know Zach believed that our suffering, when we offer it up, a lot of times we don’t get to see what God does with it. But I believe it still happens…[Zach also] relied on the sacraments. We would have our parish priest over for the anointing, and especially at the end, when Zach couldn’t even sit up on the couch, he would just lay there with his eyes closed and raise his hands for the anointing. He understood the power of those sacraments.”
One of the pivotal moments in Zach’s cancer battle was the family’s trip to Lourdes. Laura revealed that she was a little ambivalent at the thought of traveling to the pilgrimage site whose waters attract many in search of healing: “It sort of felt like a setup. You go and you pray for this miracle, and you don’t get the one that you’re seeking. I didn’t want to set myself up that way…And I remember turning that over to God and saying, ‘If You want us to go, then You’re going to have to pay for it.’ And He did. A family that we were acquainted with, but didn’t know very well, the same thought popped into their head. They approached us and said, ‘We would like to send you to Lourdes.’ And we hadn’t made it known that it was something we wanted to do. And they paid for our trip.”
Laura continued, “We did go praying for a miracle…I asked for Zach to be completely healed. But I also understood that bigger picture thing that we believe in…So I prayed…’Lord…Your will be done here. Here’s what I want. I want Zach to be healed, but I trust in You.’…We all went into the baths. We came out and felt enormous peace and knew there was, if not physical healing, there was spiritual healing in each of us. When we got home from that trip…is when Zach really started to feel intense pain in his hip again, which is where the cancer started.We found out he was loaded with cancer, it had exploded. In some sense, it was the opposite of what we asked for. But it was also the last year of his life. That was when he wrote ‘Clouds.’ That’s when the world heard about it. And I really look at that as the miracle of Lourdes.”
The song “Clouds” came about because Laura encouraged Zach to write letters to his family and friends about things he would like them to know or remember about him. About a month later, while cleaning up the family room, she found a piece of paper with the lyrics to “Clouds” on it. She saw the song as Zach’s way of expressing his heart to those he loved. He played the song for her – and some time later, performed it on a local Radiothon that was raising money for childhood cancer research in their community. Within weeks, two million people had watched the video that was produced of Zach playing “Clouds” – and its popularity just kept growing.
Though the movie “Clouds” includes a good deal of sadness, it also conveys joy. That, too, is a reflection of real life. Laura observed, “There is no joy like that which is experienced in the midst of intense suffering…Reflecting back on it, joy isn’t so much about the laughter that happens. That’s certainly part of it, but laughter doesn’t have to be present. What it’s about is having those intense moments of contentment and gratitude in the midst of suffering, which is an expression of – even in this darkness, God is here. He is here, and we can feel that He is part of this…We had a lot of that, and Zach was really good at tapping into that. I think that’s really the thing that people saw in him, that ability to find joy, even in this incredible loss that he experienced every day, the loss of his health and the loss of his future.”
Through watching “Clouds” – as well as seeing the real-life Zach in the Soul Pancake documentary “Meet Zach Sobiech: My Last Days” – it was evident to me that this young man had a saintliness about him that reflected the ideas we hear about in the Prayer of St. Francis. Zach was an instrument of peace, of faith, and of love. Laura misses those qualities in his physical absence, but also believes this is not the end.
She concluded, “I’m his mom, so I pray for his soul. But then I also talk to him and ask him to intercede for me. I try to hit both ends there…But as we look back, it’s incredible to us that he did somehow bring peace to us, even though he was the one that was having to let go and struggle so much…There’s always going to be this space where Zach is, and I never want that to go way. I never want to get to the point where some tears aren’t shed because, again, it’s my love for him that brings that to the surface. I can’t see him now. I look forward to seeing him again, and that’s my hope: I will get to see him again.”
(To listen to my full interview with Laura Sobiech, click on the podcast link):