Benny decided that he had enough of the Fool's Errand so he stayed away from the Kroll house, trying to get back into his routine before he bumped into Ellen at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store. Let the past stay where it was supposed to be, he figured.
But then his cell phone went off at work and he saw that it was Ellen's number on the caller ID.
"Hello?" He said, answering the ring.
"My mother's not doing well at all," Ellen announced. "I thought you'd want to know."
"I'll be right over," Benny said, back on the Fool's Errand trend mill once again.
The Visiting Nurse and Hospice nurse were both at the house when Benny arrived. Mrs. Kroll looked horrible – a blue gray tint to her skin with an oxygen mask covering her mouth and nose as she struggled to breath. Her eyes were closed and blackened around the rims. Her hair was matted to her scalp.
"I think this is it," Ellen told him as he stood in the doorway to the living room.
"Maybe you should call Father Fitzgerald," Benny suggested delicately.
"Could you do it?" Ellen asked hopefully.
It was the least Benny could do, so he called the Rectory and the assistant took the message and said that Father would be there as soon he could.
"My mother already made all her own arrangements," Ellen told Benny.
He found her standing in the kitchen staring out the window to the back yard, her back to him. "I really don't have to do anything."
"Father is on his way," Benny let her know.
"Thanks," Ellen said with appreciation. "Turns out I'm really not very good at this stuff."
"You're here for her," Benny said. "That's all that is important."
Ellen glanced over her shoulder at him. "I haven't been very nice to you," she said.
"There's a lot going on in your life," Benny said with understanding and sympathy.
She forced a smile. "Thanks for being here," she said with sincerity.
Father Fitzgerald arrived to administer the Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, also known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction. He offered a few words of comfort to Ellen and then Benny walked him to his car, thanking the Priest for coming.
"Phyllis is dying a good death, Benny," Father told him. "She's one with God. She has Faith in God. She believes in the resurrection. She's ready for Heaven."
Benny nodded in agreement, waved as the priest drove off, and then he returned to the house to stand vigil with Ellen. The Hospice staff was extremely supportive, gentle, and helpful, walking Ellen and Benny through the final hours. Mrs. Kroll's eyes had opened but they were glassy with a fixed stare and large pupils. She was cold to the touch and her lips and hands were blue. Her mouth had fallen open when the nurse took the oxygen mask off of her face and her breathing had slowed so that her breathes were barely audible between her weak and shallow inhales. She hadn't responded to stimuli or voices since Benny arrived.
"She told me she loved me last night," Ellen said, wiping a tear from her eye as she sat at her mother's bedside holding her hand. "That's the last thing she said."
Soft music played in the background. Two of the parish ladies showed up and quietly said the Rosary in the corner of the room.
"Phyllis will soon be released from her suffering with love, devotion, and Faith, unified with love, with God and with virtue," one of the ladies said.
It was time for Wheel of Fortune but Ellen left the television off. The nurse put her stethoscope to Mrs. Kroll's chest.
"Her chest isn't moving," the nurse reported. "I don't hear any breathing or heartbeat. Her pupils are large. I think she is gone."
Benny stepped around to the back of Ellen's chair and placed his hand on her shoulder while Ellen softly cried. The Church ladies stepped closer to the bed and said a few prayers. The nurses stood in the shadows respecting the moment.
"Do you want me to call Donnelly-Nolan?" Benny asked gently after a significant amount of time had passed.
"Is that what we do?" Ellen asked with confusion.
"I think so," Benny said.
Bill Donnelly and Bob Nolan showed up personally in less than a half hour, local undertakers who knew Mrs. Kroll well from her many Church and community activities. They were very respectful and kind as the removed Mrs. Kroll from her home.
The house seemed strangely empty once the undertakers, church ladies, and nurses left. Benny lagged behind not wanting to leave Ellen alone.
"My kids should be here soon," Ellen said. "You don't have to stay."
Benny figured maybe it would be better if he wasn't around when family started arriving.
"Call if you need anything," Benny told Ellen as they stood in the front foray.
Ellen collapsed into Benny and they hugged under the dim ceiling light for a long moment. It had been forty years since he felt her in his arms like this.
"Thanks, Benny," Ellen finally said. "It means a lot having you here."
Benny didn't want to be a third wheel so he gave Ellen her space during the next few days. He noticed several cars in the driveway of the Kroll house the few times he drove by. The obituary appeared in the Greenville News and Dispatch two days later
Benny went through the receiving line during Visiting Hours. The parlor at Donnelly-Nolan was full of photographs of Mrs. Kroll from birth to recent times before she took ill. Her grandchildren and the rest of the family were present although Ellen's husband was not standing by her side in the receiving line. Ellen gave Benny a warm hug after he knelt on the kneeler in front of the open casket and said some prayers for Mrs. Kroll. Ellen introduced Benny to her children and their spouses but Benny didn't spend a whole lot of time chit chatting. Ellen looked drained and worn out and Benny got the impression it wasn't because of her mother's death.
Father Fitzgerald delivered a powerfully moving, emotional, humorous and Faith-driven Homily at the well-attended funeral that included some emotional hymns. Benny sat alone in the back of the church not wanting to interfere with the family. He saw a man in his late fifties sitting with a woman twenty years his junior in a pew a few rows behind Ellen and he wondered if that was her husband. If it was, who was the woman with him!? And why wasn't he sitting with Ellen?
Benny lagged in the background at the cemetery burial and he skipped the reception held in the Banquet Room of Serguci's Italian Family Restaurant following the burial. With Mrs. Kroll gone, Benny figured his Fool's Errand had run its course. Ellen would be leaving soon and that would be the end of that.
Benny once again tried to get back into his routine before Ellen re-entered his life but he found himself driving by the Kroll house several times a day. The unfamiliar cars with out of state license plates disappeared from the driveway after a few days but Benny noticed that Ellen's sporty white convertible was still in the driveway so one evening he sucked in his breath and pulled his car into the driveway. It was almost time for Wheel.
Benny rang the doorbell and after a few minutes Ellen answered, looking awful. Usually well dressed, she was wearing a wrinkled jogging suit and she was barefooted. Her hair was a mess.
"Jesus, Ellen, are you okay?" Benny said with surprise.
"No," she confessed stepping back and motioning for him to come in.
The hospital bed had been removed from the living room. The smell of sickness and death that been hanging in the air for weeks was gone. Benny expected to find boxes everywhere, assuming Ellen was preparing the house for sale. Perhaps family members had taken their favorite furniture or other belongings but the place looked relatively unchanged except that the kitchen was cluttered with dishes in the sink.
"How long are you staying?" Benny asked.
"I don't know," Ellen sighed, collapsing onto the living room couch. "I made all these arrangements before my mother died. With the Relator. And this company that does estate removal. They were going to clear the house out for me."
"Were?" Benny asked, taking a seat in an easy chair that reappeared in the spot where the bed had been.
"Did you see Arthur at the funeral?" Ellen asked. "My husband?"
"The guy with the bald spot sitting with the younger woman?"
"That's him," Ellen said unhappily. "Can you believe he had the audacity to bring her to my mother's funeral?"
"Oh boy," Benny groaned. "Who is she?"
"His future wife," Ellen said angrily. "She's three months pregnant. Thirty-eight years old. Can you believe that?"
"He tells me all this before my mother's wake. Tells me he wants a divorce and that it's time to move on." She looked at Benny blankly. "What kind of person does that before a wake?"
"A bastard," Benny replied.
"I never saw it coming," Ellen admitted, looking shell shocked and traumatized. "I honestly believed we were going to get back together."
"I'm really sorry," Benny said with true sympathy although he figured it out a while ago – Ellen's Fool Errand.
"So, now I don't know what to do. He wants to sell the house and split the money. I won't have a place to live. My life is in ruins. My marriage over. My mother gone. Where do I go?"
Benny wanted to tell her not to go anywhere. Stay right here in Hillsboro, living in her childhood home. They could pick up where they left off when they were fifteen. None of this was a Fool's Errand after all! But he couldn't tell her any of that. She would have to figure it out on her own.
"Give yourself some time," he suggested.
Ellen looked at him as if she was looking at him through a fog. She lowly got off the couch.
"I've been in a daze for days," she sighed.
Benny stood too, stepping closer to her. He took her hand in his and brought it up to his chest before leaning in and giving her a kiss on the lips.
"Benny…." She pulled her face away.
"I've been wanting to do that for weeks."
She searched his eyes for a brief moment and then her arms were wrapped around his neck and she was kissing him like they were fifteen again. Neither was sure how long they stood in the embrace kissing one another.
"Would you like to go upstairs?" Ellen finally asked, breaking away to catch her breath.
"Isn't that against the rules?" Benny looked deep into her eyes.
"Not anymore," Ellen said, chewing on her bottom lip.
"I thought this was all A Fool's Errand," Benny admitted.
"Maybe it is," Ellen said with a shrug.
"Will you go to Mass with me on Sunday?" Benny asked.
Ellen burst out laughing. "We've come full circle haven't we?"
"Like stepping out of a time warp," Benny said.
She reached her hand out and took his in it. "Come upstairs with me, you fool."