I didn't 'meet' him until early this morning when my sister-in-law made the introduction via Facebook. I was mesmerized by what I hope you'll take the time to watch below... over 4 million others have done so:
As I watched the video, as I stopped numerous times to compose myself, as I marvelled at this young man's strength and the love he and his family shared, I couldn't help but wonder over and over again, what was the source of all this strength... and can my family and I also tap into it?
I believe firmly that I've found the answer:
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 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."
We now know that this past Monday, Zach succumbed to the illness. His suffering ended, his family's entering a brand new phase but one that seemingly, they seem well equipped to deal with.
Might we all learn something from Zach's life and from the lives of those close to him and more importantly, from where they've drawn their strength.