Dancing Queen

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One of my favorite tasks as a minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ is leading our annual women’s retreat.  Last year our theme was “Space to be Still in the Chaos of Life.”  We spent a lot of our time talking about the way technology has taken away the free spaces in our lives and the negative implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being. I went home feeling convicted and resolved to reclaim some space in my life by curtailing my use of technology, especially social media.  I was practically longing for the good old days when there were no iPhones, Facebook updates or podcasts. Given my newfound convictions, it is surprising, in retrospect, that my iPad was in my bag the day Cara died.

Cara was my new friend.  By the age of 43, she had suffered through breast cancer, a brain tumor and the sudden death of her husband.  As her health continued to deteriorate, she began a spiritual journey, and I was one of the women she graciously invited to accompany her. I was blessed to sit in a small circle with Cara and a few other women, reaching out to a God we were struggling to understand, but finding peace in God’s promises. When Cara entered the hospital for the last time, I prayed that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

My first five years in ministry were spent in hospital chaplaincy so I had been there before.  Life support was removed and friends and family gathered to say good-bye.  Old friends and new alike came to see her, some having driven all day long. Our suburban New York hospital bent every rule to allow as many as possible to enter the room after the machines had been removed.

A hospital room is a sacred space, especially when someone is dying. It is in this space that the temporal and the eternal meet; life and death and hope for life anew. As a chaplain I always strove to be a non-anxious presence any time I was in a hospital room. I would lean against the wall in an effort of blend in, while at the same trying to remain aware of anything I could do to make the situation more comfortable, more appropriate, more sacred for the patient and his or her loved ones. Without thinking, this was the posture I assumed in Cara’s room, taking the familiar role of hospital chaplain as a means of managing my own emotions. I leaned against the wall near the top of the bed. Cara’s mother sat by her side holding her hand.  Friends surrounded them both, whispering words of memory and comfort.  There were minutes of silence as we watched her breathe and wondered how long she would labor.

Someone mentioned music and the conversation turned to the hospital’s television options.  Perhaps there was a music channel we could access through the TV.  But no one moved to turn it on. As she mused through a haze of grief and memories, Cara’s mother said, “I wish we could play Dancing Queen. She loved Dancing Queen.”  Cara’s college friends laughed and began to tell stories about the girl they knew — the girl who loved to be that dancing queen.  I didn’t know that girl.  She had been so sick when I became her friend.  But I’d seen the pictures and I was hearing more and more stories; I could imagine her broken body healthy and young and dancing.

Then I remembered the iPad in my bag.  I quietly pulled it out, opened my Spotify app, and searched. Sure enough, there was Dancing Queen, the 1976 hit song by the Swedish pop group ABBA. I hit play and turned up the volume.  I will always remember the joy in her face as Cara’s mother sang along to her dying daughter. “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.”  I’m sure for this grieving mother, her daughter was still just seventeen, twirling around the room, dancing and singing. As she sang to her daughter we all longed with her for healing for this beautiful woman.  We longed for her journey to end in the warm embrace of the God who created her, who gave her the will and the energy to dance so many years ago.

After the funeral Cara’s mother spoke to me.  She told me she had spent years worrying about her daughter’s death. She didn’t want her daughter to die, but if she was going to die, she wanted it to be painless and peaceful. She was relieved that Cara’s death had been so beautiful, peacefully surrounded by those who loved her. Then with a gleam in her eye she told me how happy Dancing Queen had made her. She thanked me, and I was so grateful to have been able to provide that memory for her.

So you can never put God in a box.  As soon as you preach about the evils of technology, God will stick you in a hospital room and ask you to use the internet to his glory.  And sometimes, even the quietest spaces in our lives need a mobile device with just a little bit of streamed music.

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