I found out Muriel's son-in-law Kevin had died when I phoned her early one Tuesday morning about three weeks ago.
I woke up with the thought, "I have to call Muriel!" Muriel and I met in 1985 at the Boston Women's Theater Festival when I shared a dressing room with her and her two sisters, who make up Spiderwoman Feminist Theater. Muriel and I became close friends after we ran into each other in Amsterdam. We had both moved there because we had fallen in love with Dutch women. Eventually we both returned to our homes -- me to San Francisco and Muriel to Brooklyn.
Muriel, Native American and living in New York City, was much more at risk for COVID-19 than me. How had I forgotten to keep track of her?
I was relieved to hear that Muriel was okay. When she told me that Kevin had died, we both started sobbing. Kevin was the son of Muriel's best friend. Muriel had known him from birth. Kevin and Muriel's daughter, Murielle, were childhood friends who ended up getting married. For me, this was the first death from COVID-19 of someone I knew.
Kevin & Murielle with their daughter Josephine
Kevin and Murielle in "Don't Feed the Indians:
A Divine Comedy Pageant!" at La Mama in NYC
When Kevin lived, he was very alive. He had a big, joyful presence. He was a musician who cherished Native music, founding drumming circles and creating singing events. My strongest memory of Kevin is a birthday party for Muriel that he arranged. It was at a little-known Spanish restaurant in the Village that specialized in lobster. You ordered it by the pound! And who knew what was the right weight to order?!? Not us! Kevin was the master of ceremonies as we all gorged ourselves on lobster and champagne. He rejoiced in creating so much pleasure for his family plus me. It was a glorious feast. I admit, I was a bit shocked when the bill came, but I have no regrets. I'll never forget that night.
I want to share one of Kevin's obituaries:
"As we carry his song forward, his footprints are ones that will be followed by many generations to come. The warmth Kevin gave radiated from his smile and he welcomed all with an embrace that would feel like “home." For in him, we saw “home," a place where a shared vision of inclusiveness existed. Never losing his optimism, he shined on and encouraged us
Kevin & Friend Performing for a
rooftop cemerony in Manhattan
to forge ahead with love and dedication. Among Kevin’s many accomplishments, he was the Lead singer of SilverCloud Singers (named for his mother), Former Executive Director of the American Indian Community House (New York City), Panel-speaker, teacher, presenter, performer, and composer of numerous events, shows, and honoring ceremonies, to name a few. Creating a safe haven for community members to gather and compose their own songs and stories, his focus was always that of bringing the community together, wanting a harmonious song to be spoken between all. Kevin’s contributions are endless and he will not be forgotten."
Don't Feed the Indians, Above & Below
That beautiful obituary gives you a sense of what Kevin meant to his community. But it just begins to describe his artistic accomplishments. He and Murielle founded Safe Harbors, an Indigenous theater and performing arts collective, which created Don't Feed the Indians--A Divine Comedy Pageant. I highly recommend you click the link and sample some moments of this 3 1/2 hour extravaganza, as irreverent as its title. A great scene starts at 1:48.
Kevin toured internationally and performed with such artists as David Amram and Savion Glover. In 2019, he composed and played percussion for the Broadway production and national tour of Ajijack on Turtle Island. His life ended just as he was finding a big place in the world for his art.
Muriel talked of how Kevin had supported her in starting a group of women drummers -- a controversial idea in Indigenous culture, where the drum was sacred and belonged only to men. He offered to help the women drummers rehearse: "After all, you're my mother-in-law. I don't want you to embarrass me!"
With a COVID-19 death, there is the tragedy of a life cut short, and the reverberating tragedy caused by the impossibility of performing all the healing rituals around death. In a close community like the one Kevin was part of, this was particularly agonizing. Kevin died without any loved ones nearby. His wife Murielle, also suffering from COVID-19, was left alone in her house to grieve. Finally their daughter, Josie, could stand it no longer and went to stay with her mother -- over the protests of everyone who feared that Josie might catch the virus too.
THE STORY OF THE VIEWING:
Muriel spoke of the agony of not being able to be there for her son-in-law's death or her daughter's grief. She finally decided that she had to go to the viewing of Kevin's body before it was cremated. She had to be there to support Murielle, who had recovered enough to attend. SHE HAD TO.
Muriel's partner, Deborah, was not happy about that. But Muriel assured her that she'd keep her mask on, stay six feet away, etc. etc. Deborah said, "If you're going, I'm going." Deborah, who is not Native, has dedicated her life and considerable abilities as a stage manager to supporting Muriel's theater work and many other Native performances. Deborah is very much a member of this special community, the Indigenous people of New York City.
Muriel and Deborah are a solid couple, deeply intertwined. They live and work together. From my outsider's viewpoint, they seem to fit together in a seamless and contented way. It is hard to imagine two people more different and more suited to each other.
Deborah & Muriel at Muriel's 70th Birthday Party
I think Deborah knew she had to go to the viewing if there was to be any chance of Muriel keeping six feet from all the people she loved.
On the morning of the day of the viewing, Muriel got a phone call from an old friend who had just found out about Kevin. She told him she was going to the viewing of Kevin's body that day. Old Friend went ballistic: "How can you do that? You're too vulnerable! You're too old! How old are you?" Muriel is 83. He raged on: "The community needs you! You have an obligation to take care of yourself! You have no right to do this!"
Old Friend screamed and Muriel sobbed. She got off the phone and told Deborah she was staying home. "But," she said, "I can't tell Murielle I'm afraid to go. I'll tell her my knee hurts too much today." She was recovering from knee surgery.
Deborah: "I think you should tell her the truth."
Muriel: "I can't tell her I'm too scared to come! How can I say that, after everything she's been through? I'm going to tell her my knee is too bad."
So Muriel phoned her daughter and told her that her knee couldn't handle an outing that day. The phone call went well. Muriel hung up. "Thank goodness that's over."
Deborah: "It's not right that you lied. This is too important! You have to tell Murielle the truth!"
Muriel: "But she'll hate me for being too scared!"
Deborah: "This is too important to lie about!"
To me, it is fascinating that Deborah was willing to go along with whatever decision Muriel made about going to the viewing, which would have been a risk to both their lives. But she absolutely could not accept Muriel lying to her daughter about it.
Muriel thought it over and decided Deborah was right. When she phoned Murielle, her daughter said, "Oh Ma, I know you can't come. It would be too risky. I can't afford to lose you too! Please stay home."
Muriel and Deborah watched the viewing of Kevin's body on Zoom. The funeral home was supposed to only let in ten people at a time. But somehow everyone crowded in. In any case, people were too overwhelmed, with grief for Kevin and joy at seeing each other, to keep six feet apart. So it really was better that Muriel wasn't there, painful though it was.
And so Kevin Tarrant, beloved of many, left the world. Kevin called himself a "song-catcher." He said in an interview: "It’s a gift…there’s a tree of life and every time a leaf falls, that’s a song. And every time that leaf comes down and hits the ground the song is no longer there. But some people are attuned to catch that song and I’m lucky enough to be one of those people.”
Dear Kevin, I know you have found your Safe Harbor, you who were a safe harbor to so many. Thanks for all the music and the love... oh, and that glorious night of too much lobster.