Shelbyville Woman’s Club members “went on a bear hunt” Wednesday afternoon with guest speaker, author, and teacher Connie Gatlin.
Like the old children’s song goes, when going on a bear hunt and coming upon a cave, the only choice is to go through it.
It’s a metaphor Gatlin used to during her speech to illustrate how to handle grief.
It’s safe to say Gatlin has had many successful runs in Cleveland’s art community. A drama teacher at Bradley Central High School (her alma mater), she’s directed plays including West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors, and Steel Magnolias.
She’s even helped curate museum exhibits, draft drama curriculum for schools, and taken students to New York City for Broadway and show choir trips. She also owns the Cleveland Ballet.
As the honorarium at the luncheon, Gatlin chose “Art is Here” for the donation to help establish a visual arts center in Cleveland.
But even though Gatlin can attest to the success of her involvement in pioneering unique career paths, life was not always filled with joy, Gatlin recalled.
“God had another plan,” she said, and then shared her many seasons of grief―which she describes as an impactful element that’s a demanding thief and the closest thing to hell on earth.
Stories and seasons of grief
Born and raised in the Cleveland, Tenn., area, Gatlin grew up listening to her father’s stories, which he told Sunday after Sunday at the breakfast table. It was the inspiration for her first book “Sunday after Sunday.”
“Our lives are composed of stories―moments that get tied together by other moments―moments that eventually drift into our memories and become the stories of our lives,” she said. And stories were the method she used to portray her tale of inspiration.
Later in life, she and her husband were expecting their first child. They were so excited, they planned to name him Nick since as he was to be a Christmas baby. But come Thanksgiving, they lost their first child. “I could not breathe through the pain,” she said.
Fast forward a year or so, when Gatlin and her husband were expecting their second child. But again, they lost the baby, this time a little girl.
“And I thought my life was over,” she said. “But we fought back, and moved through.”
Grief-stricken, the odds seemed against them. Until Gatlin had her third child, Abigail, who is alive and well today and is even a dancer for the Radio City Rockettes.
Gatlin went on to have another child, Clark. But he tragically died in a car accident one snowy day in February 1993.
“We lost Clark to an accident that ripped out my heart. There was no breath, only pain,” she said.
It wasn’t too long after that her husband of 30 years “fell into the ugly pit of adultery” and left her for another younger woman.
Several years after― just about the time she thought she was getting through all the grief―Gatlin had surgery to remove a polyp.
But her two-day hospital trip turned into a six-month hospital stay after complications from surgery resulted in a three-month coma and a three-month recovery.
“If your grief experiences have been minimal, blessings to you,” she said. “But if your grief experiences have been huge, then blessings on you for having had more than your share.”
“Just like that undertow in the ocean that you can’t see, you don’t know it’s there, but it will grab you and pull you under―in the line in the grocery store, walking in the dress shop. It grabs you and pulls you…and there’s nothing to do but go to the car, lock the door, and wail,” Gatlin said.
With all this loss, it seemed―for Gatlin at the time―that she could never see humor again. But she assured, humor is a gift from the Lord and truly important in all of our lives.
“You can move through it―just like the cave. It’s dark. It’s rocky. It’s scary, but you can move through it. There’s no going under,” she told her audience. It’s that which makes you stronger.
“The light at the end of the cave is awaiting you.”
Next month’s Woman’s Club meeting will be the Christmas home tours, featuring Jacob and Brittney Baum and David and Tonya Coffey. For the special event, 125 reservation spots will be available.
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