As told by Karen Ray
More than a piece of handcrafted artwork. More than a collection of red, white and blue cotton. More than the hours and thousands of stitches that have gone into its creation. More than the sum of its parts, it is a quilt made in the Welcome Home pattern. It serves as a final honor guard, covering veterans in the compassionate care of La Posada, Mesilla Valley Hospice (MVH) on their final journey.
Kathy Olson, program coordinator with La Posada, says they strive to honor the life experiences of the veterans under their care. She recalls that in June, 2014 MVH realized “one size does not fit all…your life experiences shape your death experiences and that is very very true of the veteran population.” MVH is part of a national program called ‘We Honor Veterans.’ This is a collaborative effort by National Hospice, the Palliative Care Organization and the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize veterans’ unique needs at the end of life. The local program is called “Mission Accomplished” and Olson says the hospice’s goal is to “provide exquisite end of life care… no matter what that veteran has done in their past military experience, now that mission is accomplished and they just have to finish out their journey.”
MVH learned about a ceremony called “the honor walk,” sometimes called “the final tribute,” thought to have originated in a VA hospital. When a veteran passes away their body is draped in something very special. In some of the VA facilities it’s often a burial flag, although at times a blanket or quilt is used.
In MVH’s developing version of this ceremony, Olson said they decided that “not only is the veteran draped in something special, but there is an overhead announcement that is made so everyone in the facility knows that we’ve lost an honored veteran. Then they would stand at attention on either side of the hall as the draped body is taken away from the building for the last time.”
Olson said, “We began discussing what we should use to drape the body in. Should we get a burial flag? Should we use a quilt? One of our members at the time, John Egbert, whose wife Linnea is a quilter with the Las Colcheras Quilt Guild in Las Cruces, said ‘You have to see this quilt by Hattie.’” They asked her to bring the unfinished quilt and were moved by her work.
MVH honors veterans in many ways
Olson explains the We Honor Veterans pin she is wearing, “The hospice staff wears these as outward symbols to the community that we honor veterans and we have the capacity to care for them in a very special way. When we have a veteran either admitted to La Posada or into our home care we do a pinning ceremony where we give them one of these pins as a way to say thank you for your service, we honor you and we welcome you into the Mesilla Valley Hospice family.”
Hospice also has a welcome card for those who are admitted to La Posada and a door clip with a small American flag in it. This denotes that there is an honored veteran in that room and encourages staff to go in and thank them for their service.
Mesilla Valley Hospice is a 4 star organization within the We Honor Veterans national program. Olson notes that, “A big component of the We Honor Veterans program is the veteran to veteran volunteer program.” Volunteers are asked to sit and listen. “Sometimes they have a need to reminisce,” she says, “So, just listening is great, sometimes volunteers will be asked to write it down for them, make a memory book for them, whatever they want to do with that … I pinned a gentleman who was in Guam and he said, ‘You know what I want to do? I want to sit at the computer and write my stories of my time there.’ He can start that now, but as his journey progresses he may need some help with that and so our volunteers are going in to help him write that story. You can’t undervalue telling the story and listening to the story.”
Hattie Geisel began quilting back in the ‘80s, “before all of these modern tools were there.”She “did the first one all by hand…then when rotary cutters came out I thought “Oh my gosh, that’s just wonderful! And all the rulers and the templates!” Her quilts have great meaning for her, hours of care going into each one for the special recipient. She says it has warmed her heart when family members have asked for specific care directions for the quilt she has lovingly crafted for them. They treasure the gift and want to make sure it lasts.
Geisel chose a patriotic pattern called “Welcome Home” and began the time intensive process of creating the 100% cotton quilt in late spring, 2014. The piecing of the top took about three months. She recalled, “Our guild president had asked for the members to make a quilt to give to New Mexico veterans or wounded warriors ... but as I was making it I wondered why I was making this particular quilt.” Prior to joining the national program, and unaware of the organization’s plans for a veteran’s honoring ceremony, Hattie continued sewing. She recalls “I had just finished the top when Linnea said ‘I want you to make a quilt for hospice because they have started this program.’ When she said that it was like an omen to me, I thought something had told me that I really needed to make this quilt but I didn’t know why, till now it all came (together).” She completed the quilt top, extending it to cover a gurney. Then, Geisel had it quilted by a friend in Idaho and gave it to Hospice just days before they needed it for one of their veterans.
Olson said, “When Linnea brought the quilt to us… at the time we hadn’t really decided if (the covering) was going to be the flag or not. As soon as she unfolded this you knew, it wasn’t finished…but the beauty and story behind it, when you see it….” She said “Hattie and I have talked about this numerous times and we can’t through without crying. It’s just an amazing story.” Geisel says “It was an honor for me to have them accept my quilt.”
That first veteran turned out to be Navy Captain Al Briley, father-in-law of MVH executive director, Jean Briley. Olson said “Jean confided one day ‘I wish that he could be the first recipient.’ So, I contacted Hattie and said “Could you please finish it quickly?” The “Welcome Home” quilt was used for the first time on October 25th, 2014 when Al passed away.
Briley explains, “It was really an interesting experience for us because the quilt came along… it was such a wonderful gift to us (at the Hospice) and to realize that my father-in-law was actually going be the first one to use the quilt.” Jean says “Alan, Al’s son, was very moved by the fact that we had this quilt and that we could honor his father…. for the work that he had done and how he had served his country and how proud Alan was of him.”
“Al was a very patriotic individual and very quiet about it…a gentle, giving, family oriented person with deep friendships,” said Briley, “he had lifelong friends that just amazed us…. He was one of those people who never met a stranger.” A Rotarian for 45 years, Briley notes, Al was involved with the Mainstreet Project and had been named volunteer of the year in Bernalillo. She said, he was “always looking for a way to give back… and was a very selfless individual.”
“Everything just fell into place and came to closure starting with the pinning,” recalls Briley, “recognizing him as a veteran when he first came here and allowing him to talk about what he did and what his purpose was and then to have the quilt, it was just perfect. It took him from the place that he was so proud of all the way through to the end.”
Olson recalls, “The reason we decided on the quilt was the sheer beauty of it and the story behind it… There was unanimous agreement that we had to use the quilt.” The beautiful textile has been used numerous times and Olson says “It has been so touching for family members that they have photographed their loved one with it and they have videotaped the draping and exiting. That’s pretty powerful, I think, that they are so touched by that.”
Vietnam Veteran Charles Albridge, Jr. was another who benefited from the Welcome Home quilt.
He served as sharpshooter in the Army and then as a Navy gunner. He had been awarded both a purple heart and a bronze star and was 100% disabled. He also earned a masters in English at 62. His granddaughter, Heather Vernon, says “He was one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet, would give you the shirt off his back, literally.”
“When he got back from Vietnam they didn’t get a good reception at all,” Vernon recalls, “to see him be honored that way with that quilt, meant a lot to us, his family.” They took pictures of the quilt and she said “It was just so beautiful and such a thoughtful thing for them to do, I know he would have really appreciated that as well. She said, “The hospice was a great experience, the people there were really wonderful. Very patient and supportive.” This August, Charles’ family will be having a Viking funeral for him (he was Scandinavian), complete with a miniature sized model of a Viking longship.
Geisel officially presented the quilt to MVH at a Veteran’s event, said Olson, “We’re just so grateful to Hattie for this remarkable gift.” Geisel says, “It was an honor for me to have them accept my quilt, it means a lot to me. I think about it, and I think over the years my quilting has come to mean a lot for other people too.” She confided that working with the veterans’ project has had special meaning for her. She says “I have a special place in my heart for veterans; my husband is a veteran, 37 years in the military. Thank goodness he came home."