The Inspiring Story Behind “Clouds”: An Interview With Author Laura Sobiech, Mother of Zach Sobiech, a Dying Teenager Who Taught Us How to Live by Elisa Schmitz
“What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life?” That is the question posed to 17-year-old Zach Sobiech, a Minnesota high school senior, by his mentor and teacher, Mr. Weaver (citing the poet Mary Oliver).
Zach’s response? “I just want to make people happy. What makes you happy is seeing someone smile because you put it there. I want people to know you don’t have to find out you’re dying in order to start living.”
How do you communicate that when you’re only 17 and have been diagnosed with terminal osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer? Zach started writing – and singing – inspirational songs. One of them, Clouds, went viral on YouTube and hit No. 1 on iTunes in 2013, just two weeks after he died. “My closure is being able to get my feelings into these songs so they have something to remember me by when I’m gone,” Zach said.
Photo: Summer 2009, Zach is diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 14; December 2009, Zach began protocol chemotherapy for osteosarcoma at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.
Zach was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 14. During his course of treatment, he underwent 10 surgeries and 20 rounds of chemotherapy before being told in 2012 that he only had a year to live. That’s when he formed a band with two friends and recorded the song that would catapult him into the spotlight – and change the world for the better – until his death and beyond.
I spoke with Zach’s mother, Laura Sobiech, author of the book Clouds (originally titled "Fly a Little Higher"), which is now a movie streaming on Disney+. Laura is a Minnesota-based mom of four who works as a volunteer EMT/firefighter, educator and childhood cancer advocate. After Zach’s death in 2013, Laura started writing and speaking, raising awareness about the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund while sharing Zach’s incredible story.
Photo: Laura Sobiech
“I remind people that even the smallest act of love can transform our world and that life is about something so much bigger than what we see in front of us,” Laura writes. “Zach taught us that even a dying teenager from a small town in Minnesota can bring hope to our world. That story of hope, and the remarkable things that followed Zach’s extraordinary rise to international recognition and heartbreaking death, gives us all a glimpse of just how big big can get.”
Talking with Laura by phone at her home in Minnesota – in a town not far from where my husband was born and raised – felt like talking to a girlfriend I had known forever. Not just because she’s so “Minnesota Nice,” but also because having been through so much pain and grief, what remains is battle-tested strength and serenity. I got the feeling that not much can phase her, and that one of her many gifts may be to enable others to feel as connected to the Universe as she seems to be.
Photo: March 2012, Zach's family travels to Rome, Lourdes and Paris. Zach's hip begins to hurt again. Doctors found the cancer had spread to his pelvis and lungs and was told he had between six months and a year to live.
“I’m grateful for the impact of Zach’s life on others. Faith was a big part of our journey. It felt like we are part of something bigger than we can ever understand,” Laura told me.
Like many families, the Sobiechs struggled – even before Zach’s cancer diagnosis. With four kids (Zach was the third), Laura and her husband, Rob, experienced the typical hardships of the “married-with-children” life, which only intensified as Zach’s illness progressed.
“It was messy, a struggle. It’s hard for a family when one of the children gets all the attention. There are feelings of resentment, jealousy. There was hardship on the kids and on the marriage,” Laura shares.
Photo: September 2012, Zach decided to write a series of songs to say goodbye to friends and family, the most famous of which is "Clouds."
She notes that communication was key. “Often, we stunk at it. But healing as a family, growing as a family, happened because of it,” she says. “Rob and I were both so fragile. We didn’t want to lean on each other. How we did it was clunky and messy, but we made it through. That’s why I wrote the book. I wanted it to be a source of inspiration for others. As people read the book and are touched by it, it’s gratifying to know that our vulnerability is helping others. ‘They made it, so we can, too.’ Bringing that kind of hope to others is humbling.”
A Mother’s Love Only Grows
As a mother, Laura felt frustrated that she couldn’t do more for Zach or offer some deep enlightenment. “You’re in a space you have no experience with. You can’t guide them. I don’t know how to tell him how to do this; I haven’t died before,” she says.
But Laura found herself able to inspire Zach at key turning points on his journey, such as suggesting he write letters or encouraging his music. And, after his death, Laura found her heart only expanding.
Photo: May 2013, Zach passes away from osteosarcoma surrounded by his friends and family. In June 2013, the family met with osteosarcoma researchers to present $500K raised through Zach's music and donations to the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund.
“I realized soon after he died, that love grows. I love him more now than when he was alive. Your heart grows. It doesn’t stop just because he dies. It’s so comforting that I will continue to grow in love for him,” she says. “He is larger than life. I talk to him all the time. He is part of my life more now than when he was alive.”
Lessons From a Dying Teenager
Laura says it was Zach who taught her how to get out of the “not good enough” mindset and move forward. “Zach was a musician who couldn’t sing. Before ‘Clouds,’ he was always a backup singer. We were heading to the radio station and they asked him to sing his song on the radio. I said, ‘You don’t have to.’ And he replied, ‘Mom, if I don’t do this now, when will I ever do this?’ And he sang on the radio,” she remembers. “If he hadn’t done that, there would be no ‘Clouds.’ What a parent fail on my part!”
Photo: May 2014, Laura releases her book, "Fly a Little Higher," detailing her family's experience with Zach's battle with osteosarcoma. The book would later be re-titled "Clouds" after the movie release.
When Laura was offered a publishing deal – to turn the blog posts she had written about Zach into a book – she almost reverted back into the “not good enough” mindset. “I had never written a book before, and I have no business talking to the types of crowds that I have access to, but he gave me the courage to do that,” she says. “That’s the beauty of what a dying teenager can teach us. We let too many things hold us back.”
When Your Family’s Story Is Made Into a Movie
Not only was her book published, but it was made into a movie that’s currently streaming on Disney+. Starring Fin Argus as Zach, Neve Campbell as Laura and directed by Justin Baldoni, Laura got to see her family’s story transformed by Hollywood magic. “The first time I watched it, I couldn’t tell you about the story because I was looking at it through so many lenses. Up in Montreal for filming, I was at a table read with the whole cast. There was such a weird embarrassment of listening to people reenact your life,” she remembers. “The first week of filming was so emotional. Fin was wearing Zach’s clothes and using Zach’s crutches. It was disorienting. I was overwhelmed, a firehose of emotions.”
But Laura feels that the Hollywood re-enactment did their story justice. “Justin did a beautiful job retaining the essence of our story and a beautiful job portraying our relationships with each other. It’s true to the spirit of our story.”
Photo: October 2020, "Clouds" the movie is released for streaming on Disney+.
Photo: A teenager is diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and finds a way to inspire others with the little time he has left. Actors Fin Argus and Sabrina Carpenter (Disney/Laurent Guerin).
The Sobiech Family, Seven Years After Zach’s Death
So much has happened since Zach’s death. How has the family adjusted to life without Zach? “We are doing so well. There was this fear, how are we going to be as a family after he’s gone? Zach is not going to be the hub of the family any more. Like we’ve got an SUV with a square tire. But we’re moving through life, learning how to do this,” Laura says. “We still feel that Zach is missing, that there’s a hole, but thank God it’s there, because that’s love.”
Photo: Clouds, actors Fin Argus and Sabrina Carpenter.
Laura is thrilled that the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund has raised more than $2 million for cancer research, but she notes that sometimes, the pressure can be exhausting. “There have been times I wonder if I am pushing this agenda, and there have been things I’ve had to back away from. People tell me, ‘You’re so strong,’ but I don’t feel that way.”
Photo: Clouds, actors Fin Argus and Madison Iseman.
How Does She Do It?
In order to stay grounded and healthy, Laura is careful about how she spends her time and energy, and is selective about what she engages in. She says if she doesn’t take care of herself, then she is stretched too thin and becomes ineffective. “I think at times what we tell ourselves is that we don’t matter.”
Photo: Clouds, actors Luis Oliva, Neve Campbell, Sabrina Carpenter, Tom Everett Scott and Fin Argus.
That’s simply not true, so Laura developed a self-care system that she says allows her the energy to do what she has to do:
- “I spend two hours each morning in prayer.”
- “I focus on family; I put them first.”
- “I get a lot of sleep.”
- “I don’t drink a lot.”
- “Exercise – but I stink at that.”
- “I’m kind to myself.”
- “I’m very intentional about the jobs I take.”
- “I take Fridays off.”
Photo: Clouds, actor Fin Argus.
How Her Son Gave Her a Mission
Zach’s death not only changed Laura and her family, it also changed the way she moves through the world. In turn, she is able to inspire others to see the world through a different lens. “My prayer has been, ‘OK, Lord: You open doors and I will walk through them.’ We can use our gifts right where we are. Walk through open doors and change the way we engage with the world,” she says. “As long as there is a call, I will respond and continue to walk through them.”
Photo: Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund.
What does Laura want readers and viewers of “Clouds” to take away from her family’s story? “Use your gifts. Use what you have. Zach got to see what happens when you put yourself out there. It can be transformative to yourself and to others,” she says. “We have an opportunity to take whatever is happening in our lives and use it to transform ourselves. Don’t care so much. Just do. Be detached from things that don’t serve. Move in the world and make space for grace.”
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