Joanna P. Basile
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
A Letter to My Family:
The moon is enormous and hangs low in my view as I drive south on the PCH. There's a reason this stretch of road inspires hit songs.
The moment I pulled away from the beach, I started weeping uncontrollably. I just left Kerry, where we sat arm in arm, watching the sun set from the oceanside porch.
He can no longer speak.
Sure he grunts and uses a few broken words when he tries really hard. I think he said, "You're lovely," which nearly brought me to my knees. At least that's what I felt him say. I'll take it either way.
Much of the time was spent with me being extra, both of us laughing. When I’m not busy entertaining us with my brand of humor, we just sit quietly - he in his wheelchair, me by his side. We simply listen to the waves, smiling at each other occasionally. Well, he smiles with his eyes mostly. I showed him pictures of our Matthew and his entire face lit up.
My jaw still hurts from holding back tears the entire time.
I'll be back to visit him. This week. Every week. We’ll share a meal, go out for dinner maybe. He's still eating normally. Well, sort of. Tonight's dish was butter squash soup and fresh sole from the neighborhood restaurant. It's got to be good; we’re in Malibu for godsakes.
He’s in one of the neatest, best-constructed houses I think I’ve ever been in. It’s more like the best compound. One structure was actually built around a tree, bringing it into the design. The entire place was created with unparalleled views of the ocean. My dream house. But he is simply here for the healing.
Before kissing him goodbye, I wiped the spit from his lips. From his chin. My line is “I love it when men drool over me.” It makes us both chuckle. Takes the steam out of cleaning drool off the mouth of a brilliant, talented and normally capable man. But I swear his humility is inspiring.
I nuzzled his neck and stroked his still beautiful hair. I must have told him I loved him 100 times. I'll be back and he'll still be here. At least for now.
I walked outside to my car and gasped, stopping dead in my tracks in amazement of how many stars I could see in the sky. It's been awhile since they were this visible. Or maybe it’s been awhile that I took the time to see them.
God was with us today. I felt it. There was grace in the minutiae of the day. In the sunset. The way I felt his heart beat under my hand on his chest. In the stars. The moon. And in my love for him. In the love for all my friends. His friends. Especially in my love for you. And for Matthew.
Matthew made a dying man beam today.
I asked Kerry if he wanted me to send his best to you, and he gave me his version of an emphatic yes and a head nod. So there it is. Kerry sends his best - as best he can.
Be present. Don't stop savoring the moments you have with each other.
And I'll never stop telling you that I love you.
· · ·
You know, my nephew Matthew shares a birthday with Kerry. Makes total sense to me. The above is a version of the letter I emailed to my mother and sister after witnessing for the first time Kerry not being able to speak. As things stand now with my family, there is more irony than I love yous.
I remember the day I realized something was amiss. I went to the restaurant, now in the Palms, and joined his right hand woman Strange in a banquet in the bar area. Kerry insisted I sit. He wanted me to meet his new rescue puppy. He was so excited to share this adorable, little, white fluff ball with me. He wasn’t on his phone. He wasn’t busy bringing someone to my table to make an introduction.
And his beautiful hair had been cut short.
I also remember the night we met as if it were yesterday. I was going through a divorce (yes, I was married once) and had a girlfriend visiting from Chicago. I took her to my favorite restaurant at the Hard Rock, SIMON Kitchen + Bar. Little did I know my life would change forever that night.
Stacy and I thought we were all that. Or at least I did. I remember exactly what I was wearing that night, down to the patent-leather, spiked heels. I must have looked just rock ‘n’ roll enough because he came to introduce himself. And I insisted he sit. I mean he was gorgeous, but I also felt a kindred spirit in his subdued demeanor, in his midwestern warmth.
We almost immediately teased each other. It was this dance we'd do for years. The trepidation mixed with curiosity. Unspoken yearning. I was the furthest thing from sober, and tried to keep him at arm’s length. He too seemed to keep a wall between us. I learned later that his mother had died inadvertently from her alcoholism.
I was a hot mess, and he was always surrounded by hot women. And he’d never tell me how old he was. All I know is he made me feel sixteen again.
And we never parted ways after that. We were in each other’s lives for good. But when the last of the wall finally came down and true intimacy took shape, it was too late.
· · ·
To My Friends:
I am honored to know and love you. It was Kerry that brought us together, much like music does. I’ll never forget his generous introductions at the restaurant. That graceful and quiet way he shared his life with those he loved. Connecting people. Making everyone feel special. Even in death.
He was never a man of many words, especially in the end. But I’ve never met anyone that could communicate with their eyes the way he did. Even during our final moments together.
He loved us no matter what. A bunch of misfits in the desert with a penchant for good food and a passion for music. He loved us all, expecting nothing in return.
My heart aches tonight. Bad. The tears falling like desert rain.
· · ·
I penned that for our friends after he was gone. The morning he died something woke me up at the same time he left us. It's like somebody was knocking on the platinum album that hung above me on our confidant Lonn's couch. And I felt someone's presence, then a hand on my cheek. Then one tight on my arm.
A few hours later I rolled over and looked at the phone. But I already knew; it’s as if he was telling me he was crossing over in that early morning hour. And there was a mark on my arm as if someone had grabbed me.
I text his caretaker and Strange and asked if they had heard from anyone. I did not want anyone to have to hear it from Facebook. I urged them to call Kerry’s business partner. I didn’t know how to deliver such news. I didn’t feel it was my place. I wasn’t feeling very official at this point, although I had been summoned to Vegas to be there for this very moment. If I could do it all over again I would have told Strange myself. In the hours that followed I called everyone to make sure we all knew, and that everyone was alright.
I was not alright.
I sat by the pool at Lonn’s place that day. He provided the shoulder as the chlorinated waters collected my saltwater tears. We didn’t say very much. We didn’t have to.
The following night, a few of us met up at the outdoor wine festival going on in town. Thank god there’d be music. And it just so happens our pal Matt Nathanson was gracing the stage. Now if you’ve ever heard Matt’s songwriting, you know it’s sometimes sweet and often danceable but always thoughtful. And of course he had to go and play 'Bill Murray.'
“I fell asleep Had a dream Bill Murray and I were friends We drove the world From Boston to Japan Blasting old Van Halen
And one night over drinks Bill started cryin'
He said to me "Kid, of all the stupid things I ever did You know, I let go when I should have pulled her in" And he handed me his cell phone
When I called you were on a plane Moving back to Portland for the rain
I won't only love you when you're winning Other fools pretend to understand Come on take my hand and we'll go down swinging Let me be your man...”
But in our story, she moves back to Chicago. I cried myself to sleep that night.
Seth, our dear friend and Kerry's former business partner, finally flew back from New York. We made him meet us for brunch as soon as he landed. Brunch. It was Kerry’s finest hour. I really think I fell in love with his brunch before I fell in love with him.
I was the only gentile amongst Jews at the bagel shop. This was a regular occurrence with this bunch. I had gathered with them on Passover once – in Malibu during one of Kerry’s stays near the ocean. That evening's sunset was the finest I had ever seen. I will never forget those moments. And I definitely will never forget that day at the bagel shop.
Maybe someday I will go into detail, but Kerry sent me a message never more loud and clear than this. He wanted me to see with my own eyes why he felt the way he did. It wasn’t just locked-in syndrome that he found to be challenging.
That was the first and probably the only time I'll ever see a woman’s face truly turn purple.
We all met that night to see a Chicago cover band at Red Rock. We thought it apropos, considering Kerry came up in the city of broad shoulders. Well, Evanston really. His first gig up north was making pizzas alongside Bill Murray. True story. They remained friends until the very end. And Kerry never stopped giving me hell when I called where I last lived in Chicago “up North.” "What do you consider the North side?"
As we pulled into the lot of the casino, Lonn phoned Steven Tyler. And we sang ‘You See Me Crying’ to him. That song had been in my head for two days, and now here I was singing it to the man who sang it best. I know, surreal. But that’s not even the coolest part.
We went inside and met the crew. I could hardly eat, but the company and conversation filled me. For some reason we weren’t on the list to see the show - and as spoiled as we are, we all refused to pay to see a cover band. It was more about being together anyway. As we sat outside the venue, listening to the familiar yet knock-off horns in the nearby lounge, I looked up to see two robed men walk by. Ever see two Buddhist monks in a casino? Neither have I. But what I was seeing was THE Buddhist monks that were brought to Vegas to send Kerry off to the next life. Had we been on the list…
If you know me at all, you know we made a beeline to speak to these spiritual strangers in a strange land. It was soon discovered there was a language barrier so we broke out our phones to show them photos of the handsome chef. The monks smiled and nodded, and then spoke of Kerry's compassionate soul, and that he was ready to go. It was as if Kerry was telling us himself, sharing his final moments. We were so relieved, and dare I say full of joy, especially when we heard the sage advice “Live life like Kerry would.”
The following day I was invited to Kerry’s home to “be amongst his things.” Lonn accompanied me the way he accompanied me to the hospital for our final goodbye not a week ago - except that time we snuck in without a clue where his room was. Lonn indulged in enough vodka at dinner to give us both the liquid courage we needed to break the rules. That was the last time I would ever see Kerry. I will never forget the way he looked at me. He held my hand so tight as if he didn't want to let go.
This time we knew where we were going. What we didn't know was we'd walk in to see people that Kerry didn’t know organizing his most personal possessions. There were strangers seated at the normally inviting dining table made from the door of his legendary signature restaurant where we met. I didn’t feel his presence.
I went up to the loft where the bed we shared used to sit. I went into the bathroom. I always marveled at the amount of products he possessed. And quality stuff at that. I still use the brand of eye cream he used to buy me.
I stepped into his closet, and held his Chef’s jacket. Nothing. I couldn’t even smell him. I ran my hand along his leather jackets. I could no longer feel him.
When I stepped out of the threshold of that house for the final time, I knew it was okay. I could take my experiences with me. And his energy would continue to manifest in other spaces as the days went on. He was no longer there.
Lonn and I eventually made our way up to the mountain. It was like one last stop on the Shiva train. It had just rained and it was fresh and dewy, like the heaviness lifted some and the heavens descended.
It felt both airy and important, much like my relationship with Kerry. Lonn and I both took a moment. I'm not sure if he did, but I know I prayed.
I prayed for Kerry’s forgiveness.
Just when things started to heat up between us, I left. I got on a plane and moved back to Chicago as soon as the divorce was finalized. I don’t even think I told him I was leaving. I didn’t think he cared or perhaps it was that I knew in my bones I’d be back. Or both.
Yes, I did that to him. Twice. I left a second time – but this time to LA where I had been living part time. I left to get sober and never looked back. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him why or what had happened to me. I didn’t want him to think less of me or I knew it would crush him. Or both.
And what do you know, after a couple years I was recruited back to Vegas to run shit for the biggest nightlife company in town. And this time Kerry talked me through my decision while I helped him with his new burger menu. I stopped bringing dates to brunch or dinner like I used to out of respect. And when I eventually headed back to LA, I made sure I said goodbye and vowed to stay in touch. And I did. I even saw him once a month when I would return.
When he was in the last few years of his life, our visits continued. As the months ticked away, the visits became more and more frequent. And it wasn’t uncommon for me to see him every week until the end.
On one of those occasions, I got to stand before him and tell him that I loved him. And that I would stay sober in his honor. And I have. For over 11 years now.
During an overnight stay, we naughtily polished off 2 pans of Kraft mac 'n' cheese Strange made for us, and topped it off with a pint of Steve’s dairy-free ice cream. All while we cheered on the Blackhawks. What can I say, he had good taste. We called that night “Guy’s Night In.”
I don’t talk much about it but months after he was gone, Strange slipped me some cash to see my medium so I could “talk” to him. The medium told me how it was that he died. And it checked out with what I know. She also told me that our love was unconditional – that he never bought me a house or a car because he knew he never had to buy my love.
She also told me that he would reveal himself to me through music. And he has. More than once. Ask Strange about the Led Zeppelin story in the kitchen. Or when I went to interview with a potential client and Pink Cashmere came on as I turned onto the block – the destination 11 houses down from that Malibu house.
The energetic connection is and always will be there. And I will keep listening for it.
Although there was a very large and well-attended service for Kerry - where Rick Nielsen flew in for the day just to play one song – we made our way back up to Mt. Charleston on the 100th day of his death for our own send off. Some Buddhists believe the transition takes 100 days. Some see it as the time for a final prayer ceremony.
We chose a prayer that was more of a poem. And it made total sense as the clouds circled around the very top of the mountain, with the crest raised above it all. And as we huddled together and read, the sun began to illuminate the mountain. And we knew it to be true; he had transcended.
I know it to be true. I not only hear it, I can feel it.
You taught me what pure, unconditional love is. No expectations. What a gift, my love.
Your brilliant mind and unmatched talent is sorely missed. Thank you for sharing your always interesting life and death with me.
Every birthday I celebrate you with good coffee, rock photography and Prince.
I love you.
· · ·
Thank you, Strange, for always paving the way to our friend.
And your tenacity and broad shoulders, Lonn. There’s no one else I’d rather crash a hospital room with.
Even in dying Kerry made it an adventure.
· · ·
In 1991 at the Plaza Hotel in The Edwardian Room at Kerry’s ‘Chef's Table’, David Bowie proposed to Iman. They took the Polaroids, and then David traced their hands and called it 'The Touch'.
Around this time Kerry was named The Rock and Roll Chef by Rolling Stone.
Here’s our playlist. I titled it ‘The Mountain’. I suppose I should add some Bowie. https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1jPgsaDfN8fg6W35kaY8UL?si=4Ee2Lc0sS2K8_RD3giKiAg