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Chance Encounter

“Excuse me.” A quiet, raspy voice comes from behind me. I look up from my coffee and the computer I am furiously typing away on to see an elderly woman with short messy hair and worn-out clothes. The air around her is slow and heavy, but her presence is gentle; her expression inquisitive.

I had seen her come into the coffee shop, but I was busy trying to finish my work before the long drive back home from Helena. At the time I had given her little more than a glance, but now I give her my full attention.
I remember my manners. “Yes?” I reply, smiling.

“I see you’re working on something there, but I was wondering if you have some time to engage in some conversation with me? I have an appointment later today to see a friend, but I was wondering if I could bother you a while, just to talk. And I believe you got to have a sense of humor. Could you be interesting, charming, and witty?”

I smile a little bigger and feel my cheeks turn warm. “Sure! I definitely will try my best.” As she pulls out the chair next to me and sits down I am suddenly self-conscious about my conversational skills. She clearly has high standards.

Extending my hand, I introduce myself and ask her for her name.

“Daniel, you said? My name is Nora.”
I nod.

“A pleasure to meet you Nora”.

As we are settling in, and I’ve fully shifted gears from working to socializing, I take her in. Her wrinkled skin is suntanned and weather-worn. Her easy smile reveals that what teeth she has left are yellowed and rotting. Now that I’m really looking at her, I’m not sure how old she is—under her drooping brow, one eye appears to be blind, but the other is clear and full of life, gleaming with a youthful sparkle.

Over the next hour, we get to know each other a little bit. She tells me of her younger years, of her travels around the world—France, England, Kenya. Nora knows how to laugh and her humor is contagious. I find myself chuckling as she recounts stories of her old friends and relatives. I offer up stories of my hometown and some of my own travels. She explains how she lost sight in the one eye: a brutal car accident. Ever since, she has been plagued by health issues. I gather from our conversation that she’s homeless and spends most of her time these days walking around town alone.

The conversation eventually winds down, it’s getting dark, and we both know I need to be getting on the road soon.

“Do me a favor…” she starts, “… if you are ever back in Helena and you see me walking around. Would you do me a favor and just say hi? And I may not remember your name, but if you tell me ‘the coffee shop’ I’ll remember. Just say hi, could you do that for me?”

“Definitely, Nora. Absolutely.” And I mean it.

I haven’t been back to Helena since, but next time I am there, I will make a point of looking for Nora. If I find her I will be sure to stop and say hello.

It’s not easy for me to admit that while I talked with Nora, assuming she was homeless and in need of some assistance, I expected at every turn in the conversation to be asked to provide money or a ride or something. But she never asked. All she wanted was someone to talk to. She just needed to relate to someone else.

This chance encounter made me reflect on the work I do with CASA.

Everyone needs a sense of belonging…connectedness. We want to be wanted, needed, accepted. We will seek it out. Some even look for it in the face of strangers they meet. Just like Nora, many of the children we serve are struggling to find someone who they can share their story with. We all want to be heard. Though I often feel unqualified to do this work. Nora reminded me that something as simple as listening can make a difference.