Faith Sustains Dying Teen in “Clouds”

“Clouds” is currently airing on Disney Plus and the book is available in your neighborhood bookstore.

(photo: Disney Plus)

A story about a fun-loving high school kid who’s terminally ill must be a tragedy — right? Watching a teen’s hopes for college quashed, his dream of a lifelong relationship with his girlfriend reluctantly abandoned, as he slides down the slope toward his inevitable death is a downer — right?

Not this time. The story of Zach Sobiech, the Stillwater, Minnesota kid who penned the viral hit single “Clouds,” is a love story bursting with hope and happiness and enduring faith. Zach was suffering from osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer; and he understood that his time here on earth would be short. Rather than indulging in self-pity, though, the teen chose to look past the pain and suffering, past the dismal prognosis, and find joy in everyday life. Zach believed in making the most of every day. “I want to be known,” Zach said, “as the kid who went down fighting, and didn't really lose.”

Zach lost his fight against osteosarcoma in 2013, but not before working to realize his dream of recording an album. Encouraged by his mother to write letters to the people he cared about, Zach instead wrong songs — including the hit “Clouds” which surged to no. 1 on iTunes the week that Zach died.

Zach’s story has been told in the film “Clouds,” currently airing on Disney Plus, and in a companion book Clouds: A Memoir written by his mother Laura Sobiech. I talked with Laura recently, and it was easy to see where Zach had learned to approach life positively and to accept God’s will, regardless of how his personal goals might be thwarted. “You don't just choose to trust God,” Laura said of her painful journey accompanying her dying son. “You have to make that decision every day — constantly.” Laura’s prayer, when she learned that her 17-year-old son was terminally ill, was, “Okay, Lord, you can have him. But if he must die, I want it to be for something big. I want someone’s life to be changed forever.”


Facing Tragedy with Faith

The Sobiechs were Catholic, to be sure; but that didn't mean that they didn't struggle with the news of Zach’s illness. “We're a broken family, just like everyone else,” Laura confessed. “We are not extraordinary people. We're very committed to our faith — we're real followers, all-in, not 'cafeteria Catholics.' But we're super-flawed, and we fail all the time.”

Laura especially liked one scene in “Clouds,” a scene in which she and her husband Rob argue on the back deck, because it exposes their weakness. “One of the reasons I wrote the book,” she said, “was that people were hearing Zach’s story in the news and seeing the documentary that Justin Baldoni had directed — and there was this tendency to sort of glorify us, to assume that we had everything together. I wrote the book so that people could see into the heart a little bit — to see the wrestling matches with God and how that plays out in real life, both for me as a mother, and for Zach.”

Laura recalled the day that the family first found out that Zach had a tumor. “We didn't know what it was yet,” she explained. “At that moment, our world was tipped on its ear, everything was tumbled.” Laura recounted how in that moment, she felt the presence of God in the room with her. Knowing that, feeling God’s presence, Laura took a breath and said, “Oh — God is here with me!” From that time, she knew that regardless of the outcome, they would be okay.

It was not easy, though. Of course, Laura loved her son; they were very close, and Laura struggled each day with the pain of knowing that Zach was dying. “One of the terrifying things about losing a child,” Laura said, “is that your family works in a certain way. In our family, Zach was the hub — and if you take that person out, you all have to find new ways to relate to one another.” 


The Sobiechs’ Visit to Lourdes

One of the decisively “Catholic” elements in the film is the Sobiech family’s trip to France, where they visited the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. “One of the things I love about being Catholic,” Laura confided, “is beauty. We focused on the beauty, something that everyone can connect with. Had we instead made an agenda-driven film that told people what to think, we’d have lost that.” Laura noted that the director had taken artistic license by having Laura and Zach dipped all the way back into the water, symbolizing a rebirth at baptism. In the film there was singing as they were immersed, and that had not actually occurred at Lourdes. The baths were, though, a place of quiet reverence — both in the film and in real life.

I asked Laura about that time at Lourdes: Was it just me, or did it seem that Zach was less devout, less persuaded than she that he might, in fact, be healed at this holy place? With her characteristic honesty, Laura explained. “The reason I love that scene,” she said, “is that the whole family felt that way. In the movie, they made it look as though it were my idea. We were offered an opportunity to go, and so we took it — but I wrestled with it. I didn’t want to go down the road of seeking a miracle, only to be disappointed.” The experience, Laura reported, was strange: “We knew we were entering this sacred space, and that was very well portrayed in the film — but there was this awkwardness.”

In the director’s cut of the film, Laura offered an audible prayer; but that scene was removed in the version which made its way onto the screen. Director Justin Baldoni had wanted to include a prayer that referenced the byline of her book, explaining her wrestling match with God. “He wanted to show this moment in time,” Laura said, “when I just found peace in that place — I learned to trust in God. There was a prayer which had I actually said, but I asked him to remove it. I thought that for the viewer, that scene seemed voyeuristic.” More than that, Laura thought that the scene, as it was originally filmed, told people how they should feel. Instead, she wanted viewers to personally reflect on what they would do and say in that moment. Laura believed that without interjecting her personal prayer, the moment on screen was more sacred, and viewers were encouraged to imagine their own prayer. People could enter in wherever they are.


Moving Forward, Changing the World

After Zach’s death on May 20, 2013, Laura found herself in a whirlwind of activity. Just a month later, she was asked to write the book; and the publisher hoped she could complete it in only twelve weeks. “I spent the summer writing,” she said, “and turned it in right after Labor Day. Then came the book promotion, and then the movie deal.” She admitted to feeling exhausted, but also described writing as “very cathartic.” It was written through tears, Laura confided; but she felt blessed that her relationship with Zach had grown even stronger since he died, since it seems she spends so much of her time with him each day.

Laura continues the work Zach started to help find a cure for osteosarcoma, so that other children need not face this deadly disease. For the past five years, Laura has worked as a community outreach coordinator with the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting cancer research. Laura helps to connect with who are struggling with cancer, as her family did. That organization administers the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund and, which offers information and resources for families. All of the proceeds from Zach’s music go toward the fund, which has raised more than $2.2 million thus far for children’s cancer research. “I am really convinced,” Laura said, “that we are on the path toward some groundbreaking stuff.”

“Clouds” is currently airing on Disney Plus. The book is available online or in your neighborhood bookstore.