Jose Luis Pérez AKA Uncle Joey

I could write a book about Uncle Joey. He was a character.  A fun-loving, truth-telling, dancer of a character. Everybody loved him. I know plenty of people who say that about people who’ve passed, right? But I’m actually serious. Everyone he came across saw the light that we were so blessed to have in our family.

Uncle Joey was a dancer. He was a ballroom dancer, something that started when he was in high school. The job took him places we had never been like Hawaii, South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia. He was the reason most of our family traveled outside of the Midwest on vacation.

wpid-wp-1446493281573.jpegBefore the era of the internet, we used to record and send VHS tapes to each other, giving updates, saying hello. The last one we found was from Mother’s Day and my birthday. I don’t know if he would edit them or would have someone else do it, but since he was in competitions we couldn’t get to, he’d have them recorded and then placed within the video he’d send us. I can still hear his voice telling us when and where the competition took place.

My grandmother used to call him Luís and man, what a momma’s boy he was. I got confused when I was a kid. I didn’t understand why he had multiple names until I was older. Uncle Joey was also my godfather. He was a great one, too, always giving us gifts and telling us stories.

I think our favorite was the story of Ms. Fuchi. That’s right, ladies and gents, he created the story of Ms. Fuchi, a little ballerina girl that he taught to dance. She didn’t wear shoes and always had mocos coming out of her nose. The real reason he made up the story was because we had these spinning ballerina dolls that flew up into the air. He saw it and created the story for us on the spot.

wpid-wp-1446489511522.jpegDon’t get me wrong though. Uncle Joey was also mean. I don’t mean malicious, he was like me. It’s weird to say, but after he passed in 1995 my family would look at me and say, “Oh, my God. You look just like Joey.” Or “That’s totally something Joey would say,” or “That’s exactly the kind of face Joey would make.” I was basically him incarnate and then I realized how much more I was like him. He was the honest truth-teller. He also called people out.

Let me give you an example. I used to like to chew big wads of gum. Why? I have no idea. I was a dumb kid. I shoved a whole 5-stick pack of gum in my mouth, you know, those Extra bubble gum flavored ones. Before I could get the stupid wad out of my mouth, Uncle Joey looked at me and said, “How many did you stick in your mouth? All of them?” “No!” I said, clearly embarrassed to which I proceeded to spit out the gum in the trash.  You didn’t want him to think you were stupid.

Another time, he had a briefcase with him. I’m pretty sure he came to my house right after flying in– something he’d do a lot. He always had gifts for us, like I said before. He told me to sit down in front of him and he pulled out a little something for me. I don’t even remember what it was, but I tried to peek into the case, to which he grabbed it and turned it so I couldn’t see inside. “Hey! What else are you looking for?” he said to me. I was a spoiled brat.

See all the things he made me realize without really even saying it?

When Uncle Joey came in from out of town, it was a huge event. One Christmas, my parents “went to the store.” I’m kinda really close to my parents so when they didn’t come back quick enough for me, I kept asking where they were. The whole family was gathered at my grandmother’s house waiting for everyone to get there. This was also when we could all FIT in my grandmother’s house. All of a sudden, we heard the bell of the door downstairs jingle. The door opened and up walked my mom, dad and right behind them Uncle Joey telling us kids to shush. As he walked into the dining room, we heard a scream from my tía Rosa. The kids laughed and then ran over, waiting patiently to hug Uncle Joey– after he said hello to grandma and his brothers and sisters first.

Once we surprised him at his gate (pre 9/11) during a layover. He walked out and we were all sitting there patiently waiting for him. I forget who, but someone stepped up to him as he walked out of the gate. He was so surprised and then those of us who were sitting in the seats turned around. He was thrilled to see us all there waiting for him.

The last time we went out to D.C. to visit him, it was during Shark Week and I just so happened to be into sharks. We camped out in his living room (basically hung out on the sofa bed) and watched hours and hours of shark action. He couldn’t believe he had done that either, but it was fun. I also remember that that’s when I got to see his tattoo for the first time.

Those were fun and almost magical times.

I saw the worrisome and pained Uncle Joey, too. Not that I really like to talk about it much, but I’m starting to understand it as I near his age. He would call our house late at night to talk to my mom or my tía Carmen if she was around, but I always got to talk to him before it got to them. If the phone rang after 11p.m. it was usually him and I would race to the phone saying, “I got it! It’s probably Uncle Joey!”

There are times I’ll never forget, especially when I saw the pure child that lived inside him. Once he grabbed a photo of my grandfather and kept asking, “I look like dad, don’t I? Don’t I look like daddy?” The desire to be tied to someone that everyone lost early on was apparent, just like me today.

wpid-wp-1446493265698.jpeg
Tía Marina and Uncle Joey at a wedding

Uncle Joey died on the first day of winter. He was born the first day of summer. When we realized this, it almost made sense to us. I learned so much from Uncle Joey. Too much to recount here. He made life fun and loved to laugh. Whether or not he knew what was coming, he never seemed to be worried about it. In his final days, he had admitted that he wasn’t afraid to die anymore– something that gives me solace as I think about it. He knew he was going to be with his father, with my first Wendy, and that things would be OK.

Keeping him alive in our memory is easy, especially at weddings when the song “Last Dance” by Donna Summer is played. The song reminds the family (and those who were alive to witness it) of the time that Uncle Joey and my tía Marina danced to the song in high school for a dance competition.  I played it today as I left the cemetery, the only time in the history of visiting the cemetery that I ever played music. I thought it was appropriate and that Uncle Joey would appreciate it.

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