I grabbed a coffee at Dunkin Donuts yesterday, on my way to the Hospice facility where I volunteer a couple of hours a week.

Dunkin Donuts is, where Hospice is concerned, my Madeleine (although they serve stalwart American donuts, not whimpy French pastries). I began volunteering for the organization fifteen years ago, when we lived in Massachusetts, where there was a Dunkin on every corner. I carried many a cup of their coffee to many a patient over those years. Once, I puckishly told the young clerk at my usual shop that she made a lot of dying people happy. She gave me a wary look, and didn’t say another word to me until I made some safe, inane comment about the weather.

Now, yesterday, as I walked down 16th Street in Manhattan, a sip of my cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee sent me back to the first time I brought a cup to a patient.

A Hospice volunteer is an odd-jobber; we do whatever is in our poor power to help a client and his family through his final passage. The medical crew helps with pain; the aide, with hygiene; the spiritual counselor, with his soul; the social worker, with the nuts-and-bolts realities of leaving life behind. We volunteers hold hands, listen, babysit, run errands, sit vigil, chat about politics and sports, dance the occasional buck-and-wing.

My first two assigned patients in Massachusetts died before I got to know them. Perhaps my volunteer coordinator felt bad for me, because she assigned me to a little old lady with deteriorating heart disease who was still very much alive.

“Milly” had lived in a nursing home for years, and loved to talk. The staff had heard her tales of coming to the US on a boat from Ireland at the age of 10, of marrying an Englishman who took her dancing in New York clubs, of giving birth to only one baby, a little boy who was beautiful, perfectly formed, and dead. They didn’t have time to listen again. They didn’t have time to socialize. And Milly, my coordinator told me, was hungry for socializing.

I’d just been to Ireland, so I showed up for our first meeting at the nursing home with a packet of good, stiff, authentic Irish tea, which I brewed with boiling water from the floor’s kitchenette.

Milly was 87 years old, bespectacled and so tiny that her hospital bed might have been a football field. She brightened when I sat down in her visitors’ chair, and graciously accepted my cup of authentic Irish tea. It provided a fine introduction to her stories about her mother—a widow who’d cleaned houses and insisted that her daughter lose her brogue because she’d never amount to anything if she didn’t speak like an American.

Time flew by, and after two hours, I’d made a new friend. But Milly didn’t drink the tea. “To tell the truth, dear,” she said, “I’ve never much cared for tea. But if you feel you must bring me something, I’d love a cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts.”

I assured her that would be easy; there was a Dunkin very near me. There was, as I said, a Dunkin near everybody.

After that, I routinely showed up with a large Dunkin Donuts coffee, three creams, two sugars.

Hospice admits clients who have, by diagnosis, six months or less to live. Some, like my first two, die well before that; others hang on months longer. A few stay on the program for years. So it was with Milly. She grew smaller, more delicate, but she remained eager to spin her tales over a cup of coffee.

They were fascinating stories—of thriving in a hostile new world, of working in a department store; of meeting the love of her life there, a dashing man with a twinkle in his eye. Of the glitter and grit of New York in the 30s, of dancing to Sinatra’s band. Of coming to this town and helping her Robert keep up the grounds of a famous estate. Of losing her child, then her husband thirty years later.

About two years after our first meeting, I came to the nursing home one evening, later than usual, bearing my cup of sugared-and-creamed Dunkin Donuts coffee. Milly was wan. She struggled to sit up in her overwhelming bed; her hand trembled as she took the cup. “Thank you so much, dear. I haven’t had an appetite all day today. The food was simply terrible. But this—“ she took a sip, smiled. “Manna from heaven.”

I sat down in the visitors’ chair.

“I had a dream last night,” Milly said. “I saw my dear Robert standing behind a lace curtain. He was holding our little boy, who was just as lively as can be, and he told me, ‘Milly, it’s time. We’re waiting for you.’” She took a long drink of coffee. “Aah. So good.”

She lay back against the pillows. I took the cup and set on her bedside stand.

“Thank you. I’m so tired. I’m ready.” She closed her eyes.

I rose. “If you go, could you do me a favor?”

She opened her eyes. Her voice was weak. “Of course, dear.”

“Put in a good word for me. I’ll need it.”

She laughed.

The evening nurse was at her station. She glanced up as I passed. “You just went to see Milly, eh? What do you think?”

I leaned on the desk. “I think she might be dying.”

The nurse rolled her eyes. “She’s fine. She’s just looking for attention.”

Maybe it was my inexperience—I’d had only three patients in my two-year Hospice career, after all—or maybe it was the nurse’s confidence; for whatever reason, I still regret that I didn’t ask Hospice to call Milly’s daughter, who lived a half-hour away.

Because sometime later that night, Milly danced off with a dashing, twinkle-eyed man and a baby, leaving behind the cold dregs of a Dunkin Donuts coffee.