For Laura Sobiech, the image of Mary is clear: standing silently, helplessly at the foot of the cross, watching her son die.
It’s not a picture many want to dwell on for very long. But 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 go to a certain bedroom in her home and sit at the foot of her son Zach’s bed.
Zach is dying. A rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma is weakening his body day by day. 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 in his last days.
“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. She had quiet strength. The Way of the Cross, 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.
Punched in the gut
Zach, the third of the Sobiechs’ four children, was out on a run trying to get in shape for the upcoming basketball season. He had played the sport at St. Croix Catholic School, and wanted to continue doing so at Stillwater High School.
But he felt pain in his hip during the jog, and his parents decided to take him to the doctor. At first, the tumor went unnoticed. Finally, when the pain was getting worse, they took him in for a CT scan, thinking he had developed a hip flexor. At that point, they were expecting possible surgery followed by physical therapy.
They were in the waiting room, getting ready to leave with their son and enjoy the upcoming weekend.
“Before we left the waiting room, the doctor called the waiting room phone and wanted to talk to us immediately,” Laura said. “[Rob] picked up the phone and I came over and leaned my ear against it. I couldn’t hear everything, but I could hear ‘tumor’ and ‘it’s bad.’
“I just remember looking across the room at Zach and thinking, ‘What do I tell him?’ because I wasn’t prepared to hear ‘tumor.’ It was one of those experiences where your body responds before your head has a chance to catch up. Your legs go weak and your mind is busy going, ‘What? A tumor?’ It was a bad weekend.”
Said Rob: “It was like someone punched you in the gut.”
Solace in the rosary
Not long after the diagnosis, which came on Friday, 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, with Zach’s life looking like it will end soon, 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.
“I really struggled with it years ago,” she said. “My mom is Catholic, my dad is not. I probably had more Protestant influence growing up than I did Catholic. I went to Catholic school and went to Mass every Sunday, but we also went to a lot of prayer meetings at my dad’s church. I really appreciate that side of my upbringing.”
When she and Rob got married in 1989, she peppered him with a lot of questions about the Catholic faith and Mary. It was a challenge for Rob, who also grew up Catholic, because he embraced the teachings of the Church and did not have the same doubts and questions his wife had.
A Familia group — a Catholic program committed to strengthening families — at St. Michael helped answer her questions and deepen her belief in the power of praying 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.”
Strengthened by faith
The safety net of faith has been a crucial part of her journey during her son’s illness. In fact, 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. If you’re just dealing with what your situation is in this world, and this world is all that there is to you, then you have a big problem.”
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 Bishop Lee Piché 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 so that Zach could be there.
The Browns are longtime family friends, and Matt wanted his sponsor to be there with him. Permission was granted, and Bishop Piché 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 turns 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.”
Still looking to God
As his illness progresses, Zach will be surrounded by his family, which includes sisters Alli, 22, Grace, 14, and brother Sam, 20. Then, there’s his longtime friend Sammy Brown, Matt’s older sister and Zach’s singing partner, 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.”
This journey of ups and downs is sure to feature more of both this month. Alli will be married May 31 at St. Michael.
“I’ve sat down with her and had a conversation because we may have a funeral in that same church not long before the wedding,” Laura said. “So, we’ve got some things to think about. The way we’ve done it this whole time, or at least how I’ve done it, is you live in the present and we deal with what we’ve got in front of us because that’s where God’s grace is.
“Alli and I talked about [that] we will laugh and we will cry, and we’ll be OK with that. . . . I have put a lot of effort into finding joy throughout the whole journey, and I plan to continue that, actively seeking joy. And, I think in order to do that and to find it, you have to actively be grateful for what’s right here.”
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