Leading up to his seventh birthday, Izzy had been relatively healthy and strong for months. No middle-of-the-night emergency calls to the doctor when he couldn’t stop coughing, his face contorted and bloodless and breathless. Ma was more relaxed, Miriam could tell. She even let Miriam take him outside to get his favorite ice cream sandwich from the carts when they came by. But he could only do that when the weather was especially warm. Otherwise, Ma worried about the cold snack making him sick again. Miriam’s parents joked that Americans needed ice cream in their bellies as soon as the weather turned balmy, but even Ma welcomed the treat because Izzy got so much pleasure from it.
Miriam wanted to plan a birthday party for Izzy. She’d do all the baking, she told Ma. She could make those wonderful, ground almond cookies rolled in powdered sugar. Ma had shown her enough times when she was a child that she could do it all by herself. Izzy devoured those. She didn’t need to make a birthday cake. She had no idea how to apply that fancy frosting in the confectioner shops’ windows, the Italian ones. But with a few cents from Pop, and she’d buy some of those little candles and put them on seven cookies. She’d help Izzy blow them out.
She’d gone over this plan with Pop, step by step, for weeks now.
She invited Auntie Minna and her son, Tobey, a few years older than Miriam herself, and Uncle Samuel, whom they called Shmuel. They lived in Roxbury, a nice part of town. Shmuel didn’t often attend family events. He was more interested in his business, always looking for a new angle to invest in. Cousin Tobey was a smart boy, but a little stuck up. He’d just started at Harvard College and liked to lord over Miriam more lately.
His sister, Ella, was about Izzy’s age and a bit of a nuisance. Miriam hoped that she wouldn’t try to steal the show from Izzy. The twins, aged twelve, Miriam never learned to tell apart. Auntie Minna still dressed them alike, a habit that Miriam and Ma agreed was stupid. Ma said it must make them feel like babies. Apparently, she wasn’t aware that she’d done that to Izzy. The girls, of course, did what all identical twins do—played tricks on the family. You never knew who was who.
She also invited Rosa’s little brother and Mary’s little sister, who were in Izzy’s class at the Peabody School. True, Izzy didn’t play with them outside of school, but that was only because Ma forbade him to play out on the street. Rosa and Mary came too, knowing that this was an important occasion for Miriam.
When the day arrived, Izzy was so excited that he couldn’t sleep. His cough erupted in the middle of the night, keeping Ma awake. Miriam had already baked at least five dozen cookies. She had all the milk necessary to feed the children. She arranged a game of Charades, where each of them would guess what word she was acting out. An old game from the 1800s in France, she played it at school. She even had little favors available for the winners.
Miriam hoped that everything would be perfect for Izzy. She wanted Ma to realize what a good sister she was. That she loved Izzy just as much as Ma did. Then Ma would finally appreciate her too.
When she awakened early to get everything ready, she knew from Ma’s face that this wouldn’t be the perfect day she wished for. Ma looked weary and irritable.
“I don’t know if Izzy is good enough for today. We might have to send a message to everybody, no party today. I’ll see how he is after his breakfast. He hardly slept. You probably slept through all the coughing, nu? Nobody but me hears such a thing. Your pop, him too. He snores through it all.”
“I didn’t know, Ma. Maybe he was so excited. His first birthday party. Maybe it’ll pass. I’ll make his oatmeal. Don’t worry, you just go rest.”
“No, you’ll make it wrong. Has to have just the right amount of grain and water. You make it too thick for him. It’ll clog up his throat.”
Miriam withdrew, not wanting Ma’s bad temper to spoil her own excitement. She went about her business, quietly wrapping the little prizes for the children, straightening the flat. Izzy came into the kitchen looking tired, but his eyes were bright. He hugged and kissed Miriam.
“This is . . . my birthday,” he croaked. “My first party. Everybody’s gonna be here just for me.” He stifled a cough. “I didn’t sleep so good, Mimi. Ma, she had to get my special potion to breathe. She put a towel soaked with it on my face. Finally, I go to sleep again.”
“Oh, Izzy, you’ll be just fine once you have your oatmeal. I just know it. This is going to be so much fun for you.”
Pop heard Miriam’s comments as he entered the kitchen. He rubbed Izzy’s head and hugged his daughter, reassuring his son that Mimi knew what she was talking about.
Ma, after a bath, walked in disheveled. She attacked Pop for not hearing Izzy’s cough again, for sleeping through it, although even if he were awake, she wouldn’t have let him near Izzy. She hugged the boy, rocking him and whispering about how worried she’d been, as if no one else were in the room.
He ate his oatmeal gustily, with nary a cough. Miriam was more hopeful.
Rosa and Franco arrived first, with a big box wrapped in red, yellow, and white. A generous bow barely held it together. Franco himself must have wrapped it. He presented it ceremoniously to Izzy, almost knocking him over. Ma ran to take it from him, nervous that he would exert himself. Miriam ran to a corner of the room to make a space for presents. She had forgotten to tell Izzy that he could expect gifts. He was elated and surprised; the Levine children had never gotten a wrapped gift from their family.
The others poured into the small space all at once, bringing more packages and kisses and hugs for little Izzy. He beamed, his gray-blue eyes sparkling. Miriam was exhilarated. Finally, she’d done something for Izzy that he’d remember all his life. And so would Ma.
She directed the children to sit down on little cushions around the floor. The others stood around them, chattering and drinking Ma’s popular strong coffee. Ma even eased her constant supervision of Izzy, engaging in small talk with Minna and Tobey, marveling at how “Harvard” he looked in his blue blazer and red tie.
With Pop’s help, Miriam brought out a platter with dozens of almond cookies, seven of them adorned with glowing candles. She explained the birthday tradition to Izzy—to make a wish secretly and then blow out the candles while everyone sings “Happy Birthday.” He was so distracted that he probably didn’t hear a word she said.
As expected, he had trouble blowing out all of the candles. Miriam helped him, but the blowing precipitated a barrage of coughs, more and more severe, stopping the happy birthday singing. Everyone gathered around him, clapping his back, exclaiming, giving directions. By then, Ma was shrieking hysterically for everyone to leave. Pop ushered them out, explaining that his boy had a bad night—he was so sorry, so sorry.
Izzy coughed blood onto the cookie platter, then suddenly pitched forward and fainted. Ma tried to revive him by slapping his face, yelling for Pop to get smelling salts out of the cupboard.
He recovered in a few moments, but his face was drained, and all he wanted to do was lie down. No more blowing. No more blowing.
Miriam felt as if she’d been socked in the stomach. As sad as she felt for little Izzy, his only birthday party demolished by his fragile and uncooperative body, she felt just as sorry for herself—for ever thinking of doing such a thing and putting her brother in jeopardy; for the anticipated slander from Ma; for the weeks of planning and anticipation.
All the images she had of Ma finally being happy and appreciating her evaporated when Izzy began to cough.
She and Pop hastily cleaned up. She barely looked up at him, although she knew that he knew how much she’d put into arranging this birthday. She could barely stifle sobs, but didn’t want to break down and draw attention to herself. She didn’t deserve Pop’s concern. She just wanted to curl up into a ball and put the covers over her head.
After that, she withdrew a little from Izzy. It was too painful to try to be his big sister. And she regretted it later—when he came to his terrible death.
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