Beloved entertainer refuses to stop playing, even as he faces his own mortality

Juan Perez

His is a subtle gift.

The gift of a man content to reside in the shadows; quietly, shyly offering a melody and a smile.

In an understated and utterly irresistible way, he wants only to make your evening a little more beautiful.

It's what Juan Perez does: makes things a little more beautiful.

He came here from the Philippines in 1985 with five children, no job, no money, and a dream that was all-American. He took a job playing piano at Nordstrom in Tacoma.

Delores Vamnorde was there the day he tried out. She closes her eyes when she remembers.

"I tell you I got goose bumps all over and he was smiling and everybody... it was just silence; it was so wonderful," Vamnorde said.

Thirty five years and a million songs later, he has a home and a family that fills his heart: 10 children in all and 11 grandchildren.

On the day we visited his home in Tacoma, with several of his children and grandchildren around the piano, for a short time at least, he was the center of attention. It's a place he's not entirely comfortable with.

He ran through some of his favorite songs: An Adel number; some Beatles, the theme from A Man from Snowy River -- and by special request, the theme from Doctor Zhivago.

His is an effortless piano style, full of tasteful ornamentation and a lifting sense of melody that has entranced listeners for a long, long time.

Nordstrom let him go when they switched to canned music after 27 years, so El Gaucho in Tacoma snapped him up.

I asked Juan about his style at the keyboard. He answered this way: "I put my full expression and I think no matter what problems you might have I express it through my music that there is always hope."

And as he does after almost everything he says, he opened up with a glorious smile.

His daughter Agnes says, "He's one of the sweetest most gentle people I've ever known." Daughter Christine describes him by saying, "He's just an incredible man... I think he's a living saint..."

She's serious.

His son Andrew says, "It's really shaped my life how he's taking the situation right now."

Ah, yes, the situation.

Juan speaks slowly and deliberately when he describes it.

"My illness... It's not curable. That's what the Cancer Alliance tells me. There's no cure for that kind of cancer. It's called Sinovial Sarcoma, and I might live for only 6 months."

This time there is no smile. Juan looks down.

And so now, knowing the truth, carrying that awful weight in the pit of his gut, here's what Juan Perez does almost every single day, often seven days a week: he goes to work.

"I don't want to waste my time, you know, if I can still do something," he said. "Why shall I quit and wait for my death?"

He pauses, as if considering what he has just said, and then continues, "so I'll continue working and volunteering and playing until I cannot make it anymore."

Even now. Even with the clock ticking and precious time slipping away, Juan plays at El Gaucho on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He plays at the Space Needle restaurant on Thursdays.

"The thing I love about him he's always upbeat," said Jeffrey Dorgan, the Space Needle restaurant manager. "He's always smiling, always a great guy."

Then Perez plays at the Tacoma Yacht Club on Fridays. We were watching when an elderly man stopped by to request Danny Boy. Juan happily obliged, and as he played the song, the man who made the request stood up and listened, his eyes moist, his body swaying. Make no mistake, Juan touches people.

And will not, perhaps can not, stop playing.

I asked Susan, his wife if any of this surprises her. Her answer was immediate.

"No," she said, "Because he thinks work is God's gift."

I asked Juan if he is frightened. He smiled to himself and said, "A little bit. I'm not ready to die, but if he calls me I just have to accept reality."

His faith is hugely important to him.

And so, once a week he goes to Tacoma General Hospital, even now, to act as a Eucharistic Minister, administering Holy Communion to others who are wrestling with the fine line that exists between life and death.

He walks into a man's hospital room, shyly, unassumingly, and whispers, "hello, how are you doing?"

The man has tubes coming out his nose. He says, "I'm doing good." But his situation says otherwise.

Juan grins, "Good. Good to see you."

Watching him give Communion, you are struck by the notion that he's just doing what he always does: making things a little more beautiful for others. It's a form of grace, isn't it?

But even Juan is shaken to the core at times. Between rooms, he leans against the wall and puts his head down. He tells a woman from the hospital what he told us before, "I'm not ready to die."

She replied, "That's good. Don't you think that's normal?"

Juan answered, "Well I'm afraid. I'm scared, but I know the Lord..." and his voice trails off...

Moments later he swallows hard and walks down an empty hallway to the next room. The next person to lift up.

And so, somewhere in the background, Juan Perez will continue to do his job. He will share another song. Another melody. Another breathtaking smile.

And our world, for a while longer anyway, will be a little bit more beautiful.

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