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Life’s short: Find the time while you can

We were supposed to have coffee.

We tried for six months, Tony Mares and I, since Aug. 20 when he sent a short, cordial email inviting me to chat at The Brew, his favorite coffee shop in Downtown Albuquerque.

“You don’t know me,” he said by way of introduction, “but I am a writer, a poet primarily and a retired professor.”

He said he wanted to share some things he thought I might find interesting – growing up in the Old Town area, poetry, the roots of his family and his philosophy and, mostly, his relationship to a young man involved in a bitter bad-blood feud that led to the deaths of three people over the course of 11 years.

I was interested and not just because of the feud, which I had written about in 2008. From what I could glean from his emails, Mares appeared to be not just an appreciative reader but a man who had lived a full life, a writer’s life, and he was eager to share what he had learned along the way.

But something always came up. Mares, 76, was busy completing several books, including one of poetry reflective of the Spanish Civil War and the ethical questions war raises.

He and his wife, author Carolyn Meyer, were gone most of September and October on a trip to France and Spain.

A few times he had to cancel because of some bug that left him not feeling well.

My excuses were more mundane: frozen water pipes, a child’s medical appointment, a deadline, the holidays.

Mostly, I was just too busy being busy.

“Not to worry,” the always gracious Mares wrote. “This is the way the world is. We can easily reschedule.”

Finally, we settled on Jan. 28 to meet.

But on Jan. 27, a Tuesday, Mares called. Twice. He was in the hospital.

“It’s called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” he said. “A nasty thing.”

It is. It’s a disease of unknown origin that scars lung tissue, making it harder to move oxygen through the body as the scarring deepens. Life expectancy after diagnosis is three to five years. There is no cure.

Still, Mares sounded strong and optimistic on the phone. He figured he would be in the hospital a few more days and then we could reschedule.

That someone hospitalized with a serious condition was so considerate and so apologetic over a missed coffee date was both endearing and chivalrous in an era when people so easily forgo decorum and manners.

On Friday, Mares died.

“His phone call to you was one of the last he was able to make,” his wife wrote me in an email early Saturday. “He was determined that the two of you would eventually have that coffee and conversation at The Brew.”

That it never came to pass brought me great sadness and regret. If only I had not canceled so many times, I thought. If only I had not been too busy being busy.

But that is the way the world is, isn’t it? We always think we have time. We always think we can reschedule.

Since Mares’ death, I’ve learned much about who he was, and it makes the regret more wretched.

He was E.A. “Tony” Mares, poet, playwright, historian, essayist, fiction writer, University of New Mexico English professor and philosopher of the world. His books include “The Unicorn Poem and Flowers and Songs of Sorrow,” “With the Eyes of a Raptor,” “Astonishing Light” and “Río del Corazón,” the latter described as a lamentation and a tribute to the Rio Grande.

His work is haunting, muscular, beautiful, born of his deep roots in New Mexico and his deep connection to the common man.

His social consciousness developed when he was a boy growing up poor in Old Town.

“When I was about 7 or 8, I walked to the Country Club,” he wrote in one of his emails to me. “And it seemed to me that all the caddies were Mexicanos and all the golfers were Anglos. It didn’t strike me as right. Many years later, I wrote an essay (published somewhere) that stated I didn’t become a leftist from reading Marx but from my own experience beginning with the scene at the Country Club of Albuquerque. It’s fascinating how the past can cling to you.”

As a young man, Mares had marched in the Deep South for social justice. He marched against the war in Vietnam. In the 1960s, he worked with the poor in northern New Mexico on access to health care.

At UNM, he taught his students to nurture a deep social awareness and to kindle the fire of their own creativity.

“I believe every human being is at heart an artist,” he wrote in his blog, tonyscantina.com. “Somewhere, there’s a butcher who is the Henry Moore of meat cutters; somewhere there’s a house painter who is really another Van Gogh, and so it goes. The only thing special about poets is that we are trying to do it, to create as best we can what we believe is in us. All humans are capable of doing that. Pay no attention to the pseudo-sophisticated who say otherwise.”

I would have liked him.

Mares never got to share those things he thought I might find interesting, but he reminded me of something more urgent, more important to appreciate as the world spins on and the years pass by: There’s always time for coffee. There’s not always more time.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.


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