Lee Garnick Tritt, a dear friend, died yesterday. The wife of Adam Byrn Tritt, one of my closest friends. She had brain cancer. From diagnosis through treatment to great suffering and then death was not quite five months.
Tomorrow we are having what her husband is calling a Memorial Slumber Party for her. From Adam’s announcement:
Lee wanted a party when she died. She will have it. People talking and having a good time. Wear comfortable clothing. You KNOW she won’t like it if you dress up. Dungarees and t-shirts are just fine. Pajamas are great. Loose and comfy. Colorful and fun. If you wear black, I swear I will take you outside with a can of spray paint! We’ll be starting at seven, but who knows how long the storytelling will go on. There’s lots to say. Anyone who wants to, as often as we like, will tell stories about her. What she did, how they met, funny stuff, strange stuff, Lee stuff. What made Lee Lee. Interspersed might be some music, a poem or two. And then more stories. Until we’ve all said what we wanted to say. Until we are storied out. We have plenty of place to sleep—cushions, floors, rugs, pillows, guestbed, sofas, lounge chairs, recliners—so no worries about staying too late. If we stay up all night regaling each other tales of Lee, that is perfect. That is wonderful. So cry if you need to, laugh and smile if you can. But think of her and be here for her. Bring your stories and we can all learn a little more about her as we send her on. Let the Tall Lee Tales commence and let them grow wide and tall and legend. And some day, maybe they’ll be big enough to match how much she meant to each of us.
Tomorrow, Lee’s daughter, Sef, will be saying Kaddish for her in the original language, and Adam will be reading my translation (not quite as literal as many you might have read…). With your permission, I’ll reprint here what I wrote in 2008—and, if I’m not mistaken, what caught Theophrastus’s eye originally and started our correspondence:
The Kaddish—that is, the so-called “Mourner’s Kaddish” that is recited for the dead in Jewish prayer services—was originally prayed by rabbis after their sermons as a sort of doxology. The prayer is in Aramaic, an offshoot of Hebrew that developed during the Diaspora and continued to be used for a dozen centuries.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai raba . . .
Great and holy is your great Name
in this world you created by your will!
May your true reign begin
in our lifetime,
in our days,
in the lives of all who Struggle—
Let your great Name be blessed
for all ages to come—
blessed, praised, glorified, exalted,
extolled, honored, lifted up, lauded
be the Name of the Holy One,
blessed be you,
far beyond all blessings
and hymns and praises and consolations
that are spoken in the world.
Let great peace descend on us from the heavens!
Let life be renewed for us and for all who Struggle!
You who make peace in the heavens,
make peace for us.
Make peace for all who Struggle.
As you can see, it’s not a prayer of mourning at all. It’s a mountain of praise. It’s thanksgiving and acceptance in the face of pain and death. It’s the rebellious act of clinging to life and shouting to the heavens in the face of despair and loss.
“All who Struggle” is my translation for Yisra’el. The name probably means “God has striven,” or “God has saved.” But the book of Genesis gives a different folk etymology: “the one who wrestled with God” (yet lived to tell the tale).
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel was a symbol of each person’s lifelong struggle with God, with self, with death, with life; the angel struck Jacob in the thigh socket so he limped ever afterwards—you may survive the encounter, but you’ll never be the same.
In Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “The Kaddish,” the narrator confronts God, and in “a certain respectful fury,” accuses God of breaking faith with humankind, and by the end of the piece calls for both sides to “suffer and recreate each other.”
Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)” is an elegy for his mother Naomi. Invoking both “prophecy as in the Hebrew Anthem” and “the Buddhist Book of Answers,” he wrestles with her descent into mental illness, and seeks to transform her illness into sacred poetry through the recitation of the Kaddish prayer.
The Kaddish was not said at Naomi’s grave because a rabbi would not allow it to be read with Ginsberg’s Christian and atheist friends. So he wrote a Kaddish of his own. . . .
For the past week I have been chanting the Heart Sutra, the Buddhist chant or mantra that goes, simply, “Ga-te, ga-te, Pāra-ga-te, Pāra-sam-ga-te, Bodhi svā-hā.” Basically it means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, praise to awakening.” But the grammar suggests a more accurate translation might be “Oh she who is gone!”
Some Thai Buddhist monks and a nun visited the hospice eight days before Lee died, when her suffering was very great. They surrounded her with prayers and blessings, chanting in her room, and I prayed at home in mine. Adam said her entire face changed and relaxed, her body spread out, and her breathing changed.
Tomorrow we will say the Heart Sutra again, and add our own rough-hewn prayers in the midst of our grief. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” says Paul: “Though we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai raba . . .