It was the second week of August 2013. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. For some reason, I had more time than normal before my last speech-language therapy home visit that day, so I took the opportunity to stop at the grocery store where I planned to do business banking and pick up an ice cream treat.
But I never did make it into the store that day.
This thing that happened? It was a little crazy.
So I got out of my car at this grocery store I’d never been to before, and all I could hear was somebody whistling in the parking lot. It was the kind of whistling that was hard to ignore, although everybody but me seemed to be going about their grocery shopping business as usual.
I looked around and looked around some more. There were NO signs of a whistling person anywhere. But then I looked a couple rows down and saw an older man with a line of grocery carts. He was pushing the carts towards the store, and I noticed he was the one, HE was the one whistling!
So I crossed the two lines of cars separating me and that man in the parking lot because, hey, I had a little time and I really wanted to know what compelled this man to whistle so intently while he was working! I approached, told him how lovely his whistling was, how it captured my attention across the parking lot, and asked if I could tell his story on my blog.
When the man responded, I discovered a MAJOR problem…
He didn’t speak a lick of English. In fact, he responded to my inquiry in Spanish.
What was I to do?
I’d only been blogging for 13 months at that point, and I’d never run into a situation like this!
If I was any other sane person, I would’ve let it go at that. But no. I had to do something!
So I went back to my car and pulled up a translation website on my iPhone while keeping a close eye on the whistling grocery cart pusher. One of the first sites that came up was www.webtranslation.paralink.com, so I clicked on the link, found Spanish translation, and crafted something to say to the man. (And ya, I knew that whatever I said had to be simple and to the point, because I hadn’t taken a Spanish class since high school, so even with translation, I wasn’t going to be blowing the dude away with my Spanish proficiency.)
This is what I had translated on my little iPhone…
I love your whistling. Can I write an article about your lovely whistling for the internet?
OK. OK! So 8 1/2 months later, I realize this is craziness, utter stupidity! The fact that I went back to this whistling, Spanish-speaking grocery cart pushing man just to say that seems ridiculous. I admit it. But for some reason, in that moment, I was compelled to return to him and know more about his story, and those were unfortunately, the best words I could muster in those moments of rush in the parking lot.
So I got out of my car, took my handy dandy phone with those words translated to Spanish, and sought out the whistling grocery cart pusher once again.
Utter craziness, I know.
When I approached the man, he recognized me from before and stopped immediately. I pulled out my phone and read the words, in my feeble attempt at Spanish.
Amo su silbido. ¿Puedo escribir un artículo sobre su silbido encantador para el Internet?
(I love your whistling. Can I write an article about your lovely whistling for the internet?)
The man must have understood at least some of what I said, and must have thought I was fluent in Spanish, because he then proceeded to tell me what sounded like his life story – IN SPANISH!
As he proceeded, sentence after sentence, I debated in my mind – was this rude, demeaning and inappropriate to let this man go on and on in Spanish, when I don’t understand much of anything he’s saying? Or is it OK? I let my heart and my gut rule, and I decided I’d stay. Although I have to admit, it made me feel a little uncomfortable and desperate for a translator because I knew he was revealing to me, right there in the grocery store parking lot, a story that was heart-wrenching and incredible.
So there I stood, in the middle of a grocery store parking lot, listening to this man tell me his life story, in Spanish. And I didn’t understand a thing. Or did I?
My “translation” and understanding of bits and pieces of the man’s story compelled me to stay when logic told me it’d be better to flee.
This is what I understood of the whistling, Spanish-speaking grocery cart pusher’s story, despite our language differences. Words paired with gestures, paired with my strong intuition and skill interpreting others’ communication from 14 years of experience as a speech-language pathologist, led me to understand this.
The man had been whistling since he was born. There were no tears when he was born, just whistling, right from the start. He was most definitely sure of that.
He had no schooling. He could write only a few words.
He’d experienced and observed many devastating and horrific things over the course of his life. His wife died. He gestured having an arm cut off from the elbow down three times. He gestured getting his head cut off another time. He took my pen and wrote “WICKED” on his hand, and had many names for Satan in Spanish.
But even in all his pain, the whistling, Spanish-speaking man had a deep faith. In our short time together, he pointed to the ground and then back up to the sky several times. There were many references to “Biblia.” And he even brought out his lighter and lifted it high to the sky to demonstrate the power of God in all the pain.
After about twenty minutes of chatting, it was time for me to go. I didn’t want the man to be fired, so I found an opportunity to politely wrap up the conversation and bid the man a warm farewell as best as I could.
I returned to my car and scribbled notes about my encounter with the man.
I went home that night and told the story to my husband. It all seemed a little crazy, but there was another part of it that felt holy, like it was a divine appointment between me and this whistling stranger.
My notes and the grocery store flyer sat on my night stand for weeks. I finally decided to tuck them away in a special spot in case I wanted to refer back to that story someday.
Six months later, I took that trip to Haiti. And it wasn’t until I returned from Haiti and sought wise counsel about next steps for my life, that I realized – my encounter with that man was profound. I finally got it. I finally understood.
That whistling, Spanish-speaking grocery cart pusher taught me the only thing I need to know about LIFE. Though life’s handed us the worst, the most devastating and horrific of circumstances, we can CHOOSE to be joyful, we can CHOOSE to whistle and make the most of each and every day. We can CHOOSE to let faith rule our lives rather than fear.
It’s true for me, and it’s true for you. Will you choose to be brought down by your circumstances? Will you choose to let life get you down? Or will you whistle your way through life with faith, finding joy and opportunity in every moment?
That whistling, Spanish-speaking grocery cart pusher taught me the only thing I need to know about the PURPOSE of my LIFE, too.
The purpose of my life is to be a translator-of-sorts.
To translate stories of fire and ashes – into beauty.
To translate stories nobody understands – into stories everyone can understand.
To translate stories untold – into stories told.
To translate stories of lifelessness – into stories of true life.
To translate stories of pain – into stories of purpose.
To translate stories hidden – into stories brought to light.
To translate stories of misunderstanding – into understanding.
To translate stories of doing what you love, and loving whatever it is that you have to do.
Yes, it’s mysterious work. And I’m still trying to figure it all out.
Before, I believed there was no purpose in me sharing this story – because I didn’t know all the details, because I didn’t understand all of the man’s words, because I didn’t really know his story after all – so I stuffed it away in a hiding spot to keep to myself. There was simply too much mystery in it to believe it had value.
But now, I rest in peace, knowing the mystery is what’s profound. The mystery is where I’m meant to reside. This gift of translating mystery into some sort of beautiful reality? It’s what I’m meant to do.
So whistle on, whistle on people.
Whether you’re winning or losing or somewhere in-between, whistle on, whistle on.