It turns out that Zach Sobiech wasn’t the only member of his family who can inspire people through words.
The Lakeland teenager became an international sensation after he was diagnosed with cancer and wrote a farewell song titled “Clouds.”
Now his mother, Laura Sobiech, has written a moving book that she hopes will help other families.
“We never felt that this was just our story,” she said. “We have a responsibility to share it for those people who don’t have a chance to tell their stories. We do it for them.”
“Fly a Little Higher” (a line from “Clouds”) traces the family’s journey from the day in 2009 when Zach, then 14, developed a mysterious limp, until his death last May from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
The book, which will be released Tuesday, isn’t as much about death as it is about life, love and hope. While the relentless progression of the cancer is always present, Sobiech focuses more on everything else that was going on around it. There are passages that generate misty eyes, but also ones that draw laughter.
“Humor became a very important part of our journey,” she said. “There was joy mingled with the sorrow; it came hand-in-hand for us.”
Addressing “the innermost truths of the human heart,” Sobiech holds nothing back, openly exploring everything from the strain her son’s illness put on the rest of the family, to the anxiety that kept her awake at night, to the role her faith played in helping her cope. That includes the time she went to a movie with a friend, an evening she enjoyed immensely, only to come home to find Zach in agony.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night,” she writes. “I felt like I had failed my son and had no way of making things better.”
But the story isn’t over yet. A fund that Zach established is raising hope for other victims of osteosarcoma.
“All these beautiful and amazing things blossomed from this story of suffering, and I think that’s an important thing to follow up with,” she said. “Because that’s where hope is found. So that’s what we’re trying to tell to the world: ‘Look, this was hard, it was awful, it was intense. But it was also beautiful and hopeful.’ ”
For those not familiar with Zach, he was about to start his senior year at Stillwater High School when he learned that he had only a few months left to live. The guitar-loving teen wrote a farewell song to his family and friends.
“Maybe someday I’ll see you again,” he sang. “We’ll fly up in the clouds, and we’ll never see the end.”
“Clouds” became a worldwide phenomenon, garnering more than 10 million YouTube views. Donations from 70 countries raised more than $500,000 for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund. As part of a cancer research radiothon in December, 5,000 people — five times the turnout that organizers were hoping for — crowded into the rotunda at the Mall of America to sing it.
Money from CD sales and downloads of that song and others that he recorded have raised an additional $200,000-plus for his namesake fund. Proceeds from the book will go to the fund, as well.
“What a gift, to be able to see the fund growing, giving meaning to what this kid went through,” his mother said.
A year after Zach’s death, the teenager continues to amaze his mother.
“I knew his music was good, but I’m his mom, so that doesn’t really count,” Sobiech said with a laugh. “But as I kind of step away and listen with critical ears, I love what he’s done. The lyrics of those songs are just so powerful and wise. I am intensely proud of him.”
Both sides of the story
The charismatic Zach remained upbeat throughout all his misery, and Sobiech often blogged about the strength her faith provided.
In retrospect, she worried that they might have created the impression that the family was floating along on a wave of perpetual bliss when, in fact, it faced many moments that threatened to tear it apart.
“I think people need to hear this,” she said. “It’s easy to look at our family through what people see in our public face and think, ‘Well, they’re a perfect family; of course they’re going to be OK.’ We’re not.”
But, she wondered, would reliving that pain help or hurt her family?
One of the most difficult situations involved Zach’s older sister, Alli, who was engaged. As Zach’s health made its final turn for the worse, the family realized that there was a chance he would die on her wedding day. They went so far as to draw up a contingency plan on how to deal with it if that happened.
“It was a time of her life when it should have been about her,” Sobiech said of Alli. “Planning her wedding — I worked hard on that with her, but I also was concentrating on Zach. You just can’t do it all. And there was so much guilt mingled with it for her, the joy of her looking forward to getting married paralleling with Zach dying.”
Sobiech decided that telling about the trying times was important for other families facing similar challenges.
“People need to see that, too,” she said. “They need to see the messes that happen behind the scenes. And that’s where the hope comes from, because you see a family that wrestled with this and they got through it.”
Quick turnaround time
Sobiech, 44, and her husband of 24 years, Rob, tell anyone who asks that they have four children: “One married, one in college, one in high school and one in heaven.”
Having blogged throughout Zach’s illness, she was approached about writing a book just a month after he died. “I really liked having an outlet, and I knew I wanted to carry that on,” she said.
But she had only 12 weeks until the publisher wanted the finished manuscript, so she worked on the book 10 to 14 hours a day.
“And that made me feel guilty because it was taking even more time away from my family,” she said.
In the end, she feels that it was worth it. The tight deadline “forced me to sit down and put it all down before I started forgetting.”
The people around Sobiech are glad that she did it, too.
“I was really happy to hear that Laura was writing a book,” said Dan Seeman, VP/marketing manager for Hubbard Radio and the person who led the push for Zach to make the professional studio version of “Clouds” that eventually went viral.
“Zach had such grace, such wisdom beyond his years, and when I met Rob and Laura, I realized where that came from,” he said. “She’s very eloquent, very open. I knew she could tell the story in a way that was both honest and interesting.”
She’s also genuine, said Jeff Dunn, owner of JDunn Photography in Houlton, Wis., who became the family’s volunteer “official photographer” during Zach’s illness.
“She’s exactly the same person behind the scenes as when she’s speaking in public,” he said. “I have been unbelievably impressed by how she took one of the most difficult situations life can throw at a person and handled it with dignity and composure.”
Dunn was with her at the Mall of America singalong, where she was moved to tears. “But when someone approached her, she’d stop crying, wipe away the tears and give them all the time they wanted,” he recalled. “When I asked her why she was doing that, she said, ‘The only way people can help us fight cancer is if they know about it.’ ”
The book is a way of keeping that going.
“I feel that there is this story that people need to hear,” she said. “When ‘Clouds’ hit and Zach was sharing his message, that’s when I knew: God has done something big here.”