STILLWATER, Minn. — For Laura Sobiech, the image of Mary is clear: standing silently, helplessly at the foot of the cross, watching her son die.
For Catholics, it’s at the heart of understanding who Mary is and why she matters to our faith.
In Sobiech’s case, it doesn’t take much to conjure up the sight of the suffering mother of God. She just needs to sit at the foot of her son Zach’s bed.
Zach Sobiech and his parents, Rob and Laura, parishioners at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater, Minn., are pictured at their home April 24. Faith has been a big part of the family’s journey as Zach reaches the final stage of his fight against a rare form of bone cancer. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)
Zach is dying of a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. He is now in the final stages of the disease, at home in hospice care and taking only medications to help ease the pain and make him feel comfortable.
“Identifying with Mary’s suffering has been huge,” said Laura, of St. Michael in Stillwater. “To meditate from her point of view, watching her son suffer, has just really brought me peace and shown me how to do it. … Mary was there for the whole thing, and there was nothing she could really do but be there.”
Like Mary, Laura has resolved to be by her son’s side for whatever time he has left. She is joined faithfully by her husband of 23 years, Rob. Together, both have shared the ups and downs, joys and deep sorrows of their son’s battle with cancer, which began in the fall of 2009.
Zach, the third of the Sobiechs’ four children, was out on a run trying to get in shape for the upcoming basketball season at Stillwater High School when he began experiencing pain in his hip. But when he sought treatment for what he thought was a hip flexor, Zach instead was told he had a tumor.
Said Rob: “It was like someone punched you in the gut.”
Not long after the diagnosis on Nov. 13, 2009, Laura got serious about a goal she had set several years earlier, praying the rosary.
“When things started with Zach in 2009, it was pretty immediate that I needed that lifeline,” Laura said. “That’s when I decided that this was going to be part of my daily routine. So, I actually set up my work schedule to start later so that I could make sure I would get prayer in before I started my day.”
Now Laura craves her daily time with the Blessed Mother as much as ever. Though a lifelong Catholic, only recently has she developed a devotion to Mary and the rosary.
“Any time we have a struggle in the family, I go right to the rosary because I know that’s where we’re going to get the grace, or I’m going to get the grace, to get through things,” she said. “I just don’t have to do it on my own. It’s my safety net.”
The safety net of faith is what has helped the whole family get through the dozen-plus surgeries, the 100-plus days in the hospital, and the grim reports from doctors. And, it has given them eyes to see Zach’s illness as something more than just pure misery and heartbreak.
“We were given our situation as an opportunity,” Rob said. “It’s had purpose. It was part of God’s plan. Now, every day I look at it, I’m going, ‘I don’t like it.’ But, if you can understand that there’s an eternal (component), then the whole suffering part makes a lot more sense.”
Though Rob and Laura have found peace in the midst of their son’s failing health, their suffering remains intense.
Fortunately, they have been able to experience some joyful moments, like the day Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piche of St. Paul and Minneapolis came to St. Mary in Stillwater for family friend Matt Brown’s confirmation. Zach was his sponsor and the parish asked that Matt’s confirmation be moved up to April 22 and be held at St. Mary’s so that Zach could be there.
Permission was granted, and Bishop Piche expressed admiration for Zach’s courage during the Mass.
“It was huge,” Laura said. “I think all of us felt that the Holy Spirit really was there, not just for Matt, but was spilling over to all of us. We had this unique opportunity for all of us to be together for this really cool thing.”
Though Zach’s condition slid downward in the days after Matt’s confirmation, he summoned up the strength to offer a few brief thoughts.
“It seemed a lot more special for him, which I enjoyed a lot,” said Zach, who turned 18 on May 3. “I feel like he’ll look back on his confirmation and remember it more than a lot of other kids will because he got that personal touch. And, I think that will help guide him more.”
As his illness progresses, Zach will be surrounded by his family, which includes sisters Alli, 22, and Grace, 14, and brother Sam, 20. Then there’s his longtime friend and singing partner Sammy Brown, plus Zach’s girlfriend Amy Adamle, who belongs to St. Ambrose in Woodbury.
“He has this sense of joy, and he shares it with everyone, even when he’s down,” Adamle said. “His faith has made my faith stronger because even in dark times, he still looks to God. It helps me know that I can do that.”
By Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit