The gift of Greg

In the Image

December 15, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 25
Ed Olfert | Columnist
(Unsplash photo by Josh Carter)

It’s that season where gifts are received, admired, beheld.

When thinking about gifts, my thoughts turn to my friend, “Greg.” Greg is interesting for many reasons.

He has spent close to 30 years incarcerated and will be on parole for the remainder of his life. He lives with mental illness, which results in him being under the watchful eye of social services. He lives in a mental health-supported facility.

Greg’s social skills are a bit rough. He doesn’t trust easily. Greg has less than a handful of friends. But as long as he stays on his anti-psychotic medication, he will live well.

Greg is a significant friend. I’m reminded of that as we meet for a three-hour get-together over coffee. My life, my spirituality, is healthier when Greg is part of it.

Greg offers a sense of humour, a keen analytical mind and a love of stories. He can only afford a radio, and his worldview is shaped by CBC. Out of that comes profound opinions on happenings in the world.

I show Greg a letter that I received in response to my column on medical assistance in dying. He immediately comes to my defense. “What, does this person think that the more suffering we can wring out of our dying process, that’s somehow desirable to God?”

He goes on: “I wonder how much time this person has spent feeding hungry folks, visiting in prisons, sitting with people who are sick. Do they just sit at home, making up theology, deciding what God wants?”

I giggle at his indignation and am astounded at his next observation. Greg is not a church attender.

“It seems to me that all the major religions of the world are, at their core, about the Golden Rule: live toward others as you want them to live toward you. It’s like a big tree. The trunk of that tree is solid, true, straight and perfect. It’s in the branches where sin happens!”

I gape at that. Greg offers wisdom equivalent to that offered by spiritual leaders with terminal degrees.

The conversation swings towards politics, as it usually does.

“Your man, Trudeau, is done. There’s really nothing that can change that anymore. Get ready for Poilievre to be your next prime minister!” (I don’t argue with Greg, but a few days later, as he recounts this conversation to another friend, it has been adjusted a little to include that I wrestled Greg to the ground until we had to be separated by mall security.)

“And what about that time you rolled your car? All by yourself, not another car around you, driving along the highway, and you just rolled your little car into the ditch. I can’t believe that they give you a Class 1 license—can’t believe that they let you drive the biggest, heaviest vehicles on the road! What’s that about?”

Despite the acerbic wit, which adds colour to our relationship, Greg also offers compassion beyond the norm.

His memories of events from our decades-long relationship, and his ability to remember every story I’ve told him that involves health struggle, astound me. He offers concern and compassion.

Part of the reason that our coffee time extends to three hours is that Greg is unable to quickly disengage. I’m required to plant the seed of ending the conversation a long while before it needs to happen.

Even then, Greg is still recalling more stories that he can tease me about, more political observations that he hopes will cause a reaction, more philosophical opinions that slide into spiritual directions. Greg knows I’m a sucker for those.

Like a saviour born in a manger, Greg is an unexpected gift for which I am thankful.

Ed Olfert lives in Laird, Saskatchewan, and can be reached at

Read more In the Image columns:
Acknowledging outrage, stepping toward love 
The guy with the toothpick
Choosing death

(Unsplash photo by Josh Carter)

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