Winter in northern Iowa, with its record breaking snowfalls, is an exciting time for a young boy. Plenty of snow to play in, Christmas break from school, and the endless energy of youth. Benjamin Dooley was no stranger to snow covered adventures. At ten years old, he had seen his fair share of winters that adults would call “brutal”. Not Benji, no, this was his time to reign as king of the snow mountain and the neighborhood’s official snowball sniper. These were the Halcyon Days of Benjamin Dooley.
Two years earlier, the Dooley family had experienced a tragedy that most people cannot fathom. They had lost their oldest son, Jeffrey, to leukemia. It was in the early part of December, and the family understandably still had a hard time gearing up for any celebrations or family gatherings during the holidays. Benji was eight when his brother, ten at the time, died. He still remembers the day his uncle came to school to pick him up. Remembering the faces of his parents as he walked in the door that day, and the somber days to follow, Benji would often times make up adventures for himself to help distract him from the painful recollection.
“This is a good year for Christmas break.” thought Benji. Christmas was on Wednesday, so the school was closed starting on the preceding Friday. To him, this added what seemed like years to his snowy adventures. Today was Monday, the family had spent most of the previous day going from church to Benji’s grandparents’ house for a big lunch. He loved his grandparents’ house, so full of family history, Grandpa’s medals on the wall of his den. Those medals inspired a lot of Benji’s fantastic adventures. One day he might be storming the beach at Normandy, and the next he would be the newly crowned king of a frozen land.
Benji was a bright boy, bright for his age anyway. He excelled in school and received consistent praise for his creativity. His parents had worried at one point that he would have some issues as a result of losing his brother. Benji frequently assured them that he still talked to Jeffrey, and that Jeffrey was in Heaven with Jesus. It was always touching for them to hear his words as he talked about his big brother walking with Jesus. His teachers assured Benji’s parents that they had not seen any issues with him in school. He was a good boy, well liked by other kids, and thoughtful.
On this particular Monday, Benji had set out early to begin building a snow fort. Not just any snow fort mind you, a fort that would cast a shadow over the entire neighborhood. At least that is how it looked in the mind of a ten year old boy. He put on his prescribed winter adventure attire and set out to build his towering frozen fortress.
As Benji assembled what would be the foundation of his icy empire, he noticed a small fluffy white bird that had perched atop the small pear tree only a few feet from where he was building. He smiled as the bird provided the soundtrack for his construction work. A beautiful chirping in the sunlit, snow covered backyard of the Dooley family. Benji had no idea what kind of bird it was, he wasn’t a bird person and they had not covered this much in school, but he knew that he liked this particular bird.
As the morning approached lunch time, Benji had built up nearly three feet of wall around the eight foot diameter center of his fort. Amazingly, that bird was still sitting in the branches on top of the pear tree. “I’ll call you snow bird” said Benji, “and you will be the lookout for our fort”. Benji had worked up a hunger building all those bricks of snow, so he came in for lunch a little early.
Benji’s mother ate lunch with him. She had made a big pot of vegetable soup, just the thing for young a snowy construction worker. As they ate and talked, Benji’s mind drifted back to the fort and his new feathery friend. “Mom I met a bird outside”, he said as he sipped the last of his soup. “I think he is going to be my friend”. And with that, he began suiting up to head back outside, after sneaking a few crackers for his friend of course.
For the rest of that Monday, and all of Christmas eve, Benji worked on his fort. He pretended to be an ice fisherman in the arctic circle, a penguin and several characters from various science fiction movies and television shows. And still, whenever he was outside, that bird was in the pear tree, chirping his happy song. Maybe it was the crackers that kept him coming back, but it didn’t matter to Benji, this was his friend.
Christmas morning was so exciting for Benji that he almost forgot that the bed on the other side of his room was empty. He jumped up from his bed and ran downstairs to see what was under the tree. The smell of waffles and syrup mixed with the smell of his father’s coffee and somehow he knew, this was going to be a good Christmas.
Benji’s father asked him to come into the kitchen and have some breakfast before they opened presents. They loved their tradition of waffles on Christmas morning. His father told Benji that they had talked about his new friend, the little bird. “Your brother loved birds”, said his Dad, smiling. “He would spend hours outside with this dog-eared copy of North American Birds, trying to classify which ones were flying around our backyard. He always kept them well fed too.” His father pushed the book across the table to Benji. “I think Jeffrey would be happy for you to have his book son.”
Benji picked up the book. He treasured the items that had been passed down to him from his big brother, and this was the best one yet. As he opened the book, a small slip of paper dropped down to the table. On the paper was drawn a stick figure of a chubby little bird with the words “Snow Bird” underneath. Now Benji had said nothing to his parents about the name he had given the bird, but his surprise was evident in his face. So he explained to them how he had named the bird as part of his adventure. “His name is Snow Bird, and he’s my lookout”, he said. “He keeps me safe from attackers”.
Benji’s parents, well aware of his propensity for fantasy and imagination, weren’t sure what to make of it and quickly thought that he must have seen the drawing years earlier and had since forgotten. But Benji now had yet another special connection to his brother, with whom he would frequently converse while embarking on his many adventures.
The rest of the morning was spent opening presents, laughing and making plans to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for dinner. Benji and his parents were happy, and seemingly unaware that their healing was helped along by the innocent wisdom of a ten year old boy, and the appearance of a fluffy white bird with a happy song.