Friends tell stories of how teen entertained and inspired them before his death
Zach Sobiech is gone, and the grief is still fresh among his friends at St. Croix Faith Formation in Stillwater, which serves the parishes of St. Michael, St. Mary in Stillwater and St. Charles in Bayport.
Had Zach lived long enough, he would have graduated from Stillwater Area High School on June 8. But, his battle with a rare form of cancer ended on May 20, just two and a half weeks after his 18th birthday.
Five of his closest friends in the faith formation program, plus youth minister Annie Grandell gathered last week to tell stories about Zach and describe how he inspired them.
The funny thing about the hour-long gathering was simply this: It was funny. There was much more laughter than mourning, much more joy than sorrow. In fact, nary a tear was shed.
Could the undeniable mirth that lit up a small room at St. Michael have been just how Zach would have wanted it?
Certainly, all the teens noted, his sense of humor was one of his strongest attributes, even in the face of a disease that ravaged his body and treatments that took away his curly blond hair.
One after the other, five girls — Mariah Smith, Sammy Brown, Kelly Moeller, Elise Buchman and Alison Czarniak — took turns telling stories about the times they enjoyed with Zach. They were joined by Grandell, who met Zach when he was in the sixth grade, her first year as youth minister.
Full of life
“He was a great, really spirited kid,” Grandell said. “He was one of those kids that always managed to be one of the first kids signed up for any event that we were doing. He just always brought a life and a lightness with him to whatever was going on. He was one of those kids who, if he was doing it, then 10 other people would sign up, too.”
He never missed an event during those early years, and he kept up his commitment as best he could after his diagnosis in 2009 during his ninth-grade year.
One would expect a teen to become quiet and withdrawn while dealing with a life-threatening illness.
But that wasn’t Zach’s style. Even when his condition showed visibly, his lightheartedness and humor shown even more noticeably.
“He was a counselor for a summer program called Summer Stretch,” Grandell said. “We went to a park one day and we were playing these water balloon games. It was like 110 [degrees] out. It was horribly hot that day. And, we had this genius idea of filling a kids’ wading pool, partly with water and the rest of the way with cooked spaghetti.
“And, a spaghetti fight inevitably broke out everywhere. At the time, he was in the middle of some pretty intense chemo treatments, so he was completely bald. At one point, I turned around and he had spaghetti all over his head. And, he looked at me and goes, ‘Annie, you’re ruining my hair.’”
Lessons in faith
And yet, as humorous as he could be, the light of faith burned so brightly within him that Grandell felt he taught certain spiritual lessons to the other youth better than she did.
He also seemed to see and understand things the others didn’t. That notion was written on his face on one of the most memorable encounters Grandell ever had with him.
“Every year, our youth group, we all go to a camp over in Wisconsin for a weekend and just have prayer and playing,” she said. “We have several times of eucharistic adoration. . . . At one point [during a period of adoration], I looked back and Zach was kneeling about three people behind me on his knees, as straight as can be with his arms stretched out, just cruciform. His eyes never left the host. And, I knew he was getting something that I don’t think any of us could really understand. That image is burned in my brain.”
As intently as he looked at the Eucharist that day and gave his undivided attention to Jesus, he would do the same thing when talking with his friends. Two of the girls made almost the same comment word for word when describing what it was like to be around him.
“When you talked to him, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room,” Czarniak said.
Buchman agreed. “I just remember the last night he was able to be at Activate, which is a youth group for junior high that the older teenagers lead,” she said. “He came there and he was just so full of life and energy. He was letting everyone play around on his crutches. It was the first time I had talked to him in a while. One of the reasons I really wanted to do Activate again was I really wanted to be able to see Zach because he wasn’t at school a lot. I was talking with him, and he just makes you feel like you are the only one in the room.”
Among the five girls, the person with the most memories of Zach is Brown, who knew him since both were a year old. As they entered their teenage years, she became his singing partner, and eventually they performed together and recorded CDs.
In fact, she was at his house one day when he handed her a sheet of paper with the lyrics to a song he had just written, called “Clouds.” Soon after he recorded the song, it went viral on YouTube and has had millions of hits from people around the world.
After giving her the sheet, he went down the hallway to use the restroom.
“He came back and I was crying,” she said. “He’s like, ‘Why are you crying?’. . . I was just reacting how so many people reacted. It’s a tragic story, but it’s tragically beautiful.”
The girls all acknowledged how Zach inspired thousands, if not millions, of people. Yet, they also appreciated him in the ordinary, everyday things like classes and activities at school. Four of the five were his classmates at Stillwater Area High School. And, they treasured the time they had with him there.
“Zach and I had math together for a semester this year,” Czarniak said. “We would always sit in the front corner and talk the whole hour. Every time I was having a bad day, he always knew that one thing that would make me smile and laugh.
He would always hit me in the head with his crutches, and just do dumb things like that. He just knew exactly how to make everybody smile, even when you were having a really bad day.”
Funny thing is, as many bad days as Zach had, nobody seemed to have bad days when they were around him. Quite the opposite. He had a way of pulling people out of darkness, no matter how shallow or deep.
“A lot of my memories are really [lighthearted] and him making fun of me, which was really special for me because I never had siblings growing up, so he felt like that older brother picking on me,” Moeller said. “One memory that really sticks out to me is the last football game of the year this year. It was hitting everyone that high school was ending and people were crying, and I was crying. We went to Applebee’s after, and he put his arm around me and started showing me funny pictures on his phone. He just had such an easy way of making other people feel better, even though he had so much more of a reason to be sad.”
Amazingly, sadness was about the smallest part of what Zach revealed to others, which is precisely why they found him so inspirational.
“I was always happy to be around him,” Smith said. “He made you feel so special. You couldn’t be around him and not be happy. You couldn’t look at him and not smile because he always had the most beautiful smile on his face. He was so full of life. You saw him and you’re like, ‘I wish I could live life like that’ because he lived it so well. It was amazing to see.”
Living with hope
One of the most amazing things the girls saw took place on May 15, 2010 at the Cathedral of St. Paul. It was the day of their confirmation, but it looked like Zach wasn’t going to make it. He was at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital in the days leading up to confirmation, and he wasn’t doing well.
“I went down to visit him and assure him that even if he couldn’t make it the next day, we’d figure out a way to get him confirmed,” Grandell said. “He pointed at his I.V. pole behind him, and his suit was hanging on it. He goes, ‘No, I’ll be there.’ And, I said, ‘I know. But, I don’t want you to worry about it. Don’t worry about it. We’ll get you confirmed somehow.’ He goes, ‘No, you didn’t hear me. I’ll be there.’
“And, the next day, everyone’s getting seated, the ceremony is about to start and then all of a sudden, I see half my kids run to the back of the church. And, sure enough, there’s Zach. He had just been released from the hospital, like 30 minutes before and was wearing a backpack with an I.V. of fluids. But, he made it to his confirmation. He wasn’t going to miss it.”
For those who weren’t there to witness what some thought was close to a miracle, Zach continued to inspire those preparing for confirmation by helping out in the program. Just this spring, he gave a stirring message to those getting ready to receive the sacrament. Among those in the class was Sammy’s younger brother, Matt Brown, whom Zach sponsored.
In fact, Zach once again showed his toughness and determination by making it to Matt’s confirmation, which was held earlier (April 22) than the scheduled time at the Cathedral, and took place at St. Mary so that Zach would have a much shorter drive.
Perhaps, it is this spirit that caused Zach’s influence to go far beyond the city limits of Stillwater, and caused millions of people — celebrities included — to keep on listening to his music.
Grandell thinks it is something more.
“When I really thought about it, I was like, ‘What is it that is getting people’s attention?’” she said. “And, what I finally came to realize was it was hope. We talk about how the world doesn’t have faith anymore. I think the world has [even] less hope. And, Zach had a hopeless situation — no hope for a cure — and yet lived with hope. And, I think our world found that fascinating.”