Zach Sobiech, world-renowned composer and singer, turned 18 years old on May 3, even as his remarkable “Clouds” reached its four millionth listener. This incredible song is the story of deep beauty in the midst of absolute defeat. A highly compassionate, empathetic and charismatic young man, Zach had one terrible flaw … malignant metastatic osteosarcoma. Despite his powerful personality and love of life, Zach died of cancer this week, leaving us a little emptier and a little more full.
Zach used music to cope with disease and at the same time express love to his family. Each song, each performance, each video gave his family and friends a way to connect to him and “to make it through.” He created glory in the face of horrible disease and showed all of us the majesty of life.
It occurred to me, weeping through the Clouds YouTube video for the twentieth time, that it took not only a remarkable person, but also a special environment to nurture such a life. In order to talk, sing and even laugh about his coming death, and to create powerful images, Zach needed two vital supports. The first was permission that it was safe to share such difficult feelings and ideas. The people around him needed to be willing listen and to walk his journey. Zach had to know that his feelings would be respected and cherished.
The other key to being able to deal with his mortality in such a direct and creative manner was simple, but is often denied. Someone had to tell Zach he was going to die. Without that communication, Zach could have been lead from test to treatment to pain to test to treatment to pain, ad infinitum, onto eternity. If his doctors, if his family, denied Zach that honest prognosis, if they did not have faith in his strength, his potential, and his innate joy in life, then the opportunity to live his life so well, would have been lost.
As an oncologist, I know it can be hard to be honest about prognosis. Doctors worry that patients will breakdown, “lose hope.” In the rush of daily practice, it is much simpler to mix up another treatment cocktail. It may seem easier to substitute chemotherapy, for direct communication and that instead of saying that the disease is incurable, instead offer false hope. How many terminal cancer patients are not informed that treatment is an alternative, not a necessity? How many patients die, receiving IV denial?
Zach’s path, armed with truth even as he fought the disease, shows us another way. It shows us the strength and spirit of the human soul and it shows us that if given a chance, life, even at its end, can be well lived. He taught us that together, with support and gentle honesty, people cope and find value in living. In Zach’s victorious words, Clouds teaches us:
Well I fell down, down, down
Into this dark and lonely hole
There was no one there to care about me anymore
And I needed a way to climb and grab a hold the edge
You were sitting there holding a rope.
And we’ll go up, up, up
But I’ll fly a little higher
We’ll go up in the clouds because the view is a little nicer
Up here my dear.