How Her Heart Healed A Decade After 9/11
A decade after 9/11, brave Broadway actress and singer LaChanze reflects on coping with loss while pregnant, the challenges of dating as a young widow — and the man who finally won her heart.
en years ago on September 11, 2001, LaChanze's world was forever changed when her husband, Calvin Joseph Gooding, did not escape the tragic World Trade Center attacks alive. Pregnant with their second child and suddenly alone, she was forced to deal with the unthinkable as best she could with a new reality — where acts of terrorism became something that didn't just happen to other people on foreign soil, but something that affected all of us, even at home — and something that directly altered the course of her own life.
When we interviewed LaChanze five years ago, she had worked to rebuild her world and was newly remarried to the artist
whom she had commissioned to do a painting commemorating her late husband. She was on the path to healing, but not forgetting.
|Now the discussions are more in-depth and emotional.|
In honor of the 10th anniversary of September 11th, we wanted to check back in with LaChanze and see what love looks like for her, 10 years later… and how we can all move forward while staying true to the memory of the real people our nation lost on that fateful day.
When last we spoke, you had just remarried. How has it been since then, settling into your new blended family?
My husband, Derek Fordjour, and I just celebrated our sixth anniversary, and we worked our way into a new family unit very naturally (since, thankfully, the children got along great). At the time we married he had a 7-year-old son, and my girls were 5 and 3 — they're now 13, 11 and 9, respectively — and they're all very close. It was actually a benefit that we both had young children, so they've been sort of growing up together and [they] spend a lot of time together. So that part has been relatively smooth.
Did you feel that Calvin had a hand in bringing you all together?
I did feel that Calvin had a hand in our union, because to quote Derek, my husband, he often says that he feels as though Calvin passed him the baton… as if they were in a relay race and he is just continuing Calvin's track for our girls.
Your girls have grown into young ladies. How did you explain that day to them in a way that they could understand, since they were so young when it all happened? And how do you talk about it now?
Honestly, it only comes up because of external circumstances — like if someone remembers their father, or if someone knows their story and brings it up — and then I'll have to go into discussion [about what happened] a little bit. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, sometimes it's very painful for them. But it's changed throughout the years. You know, talking about it at age three, and then again at five, and then at seven, and now 11 for my oldest… it takes on more dimension. So the conversations about it now tend to be more detailed and with more care [for] their own feelings. Before, when they were younger, it used to be just a matter of me explaining what happened and saying that everything was going to be OK. Now the discussions are more in-depth and emotional. Because we are New Yorkers and people do talk about it all the time, they are aware of what's happened, and they have their own relationship with it and they definitely seem to be sensitive to it — especially my oldest, since she knew her father (whereas my youngest never had that opportunity). But I work to keep him very much alive in their minds with discussions about him and reminders of how much they look like him and so forth. And my youngest knows that he had picked out her name, which is a special bond.
How did the recent death of Osama Bin Laden affect you? What did you think, and how did you feel about it when you got the news?
I was at home when it happened. Someone called me and told me to turn on the news, saying that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. At first, I thought it was a joke, because so many people were always talking about that, but it was true, and I was really proud of our country. I mean, it was definitely a little bittersweet, because it brought back the torture of what happened and the trauma of it all; and, well, with someone dying… you can't really be happy about it no matter who he is, but at the same time, there was just this huge sense of relief… for me, and even more so for my children. My youngest always talks about how she finally feels like everything is OK and that "Mommy, you're not going to die or something or a building is not going to fall on you because we finally caught this guy who did this." I was surprised at their reaction. I guess it felt good for all of us to know that there was finally justice and that it was finally done… like we actually took care of it. Before, it was like we were all just victims. But now, we know that justice has been served, and you can't just go around killing 3,000 people and get away with it.
Have you created any rituals as a family to honor Calvin's memory each year over the course of time?
Every year, we have a moment just as a family. We listen to his name being read, and then we turn off the TV and the girls and I talk about how they feel before they go to school. We discuss it and say something positive about him, and then we go forward with the day. Because it's such a big deal, everyone talks about it. But at the same time, I want them to live as normally as possible. I'm actually glad they're stopping with the memorials. I've talked to some of my other friends who were 9/11 widows, and we're all ready to stop with that part and move on with our lives [to] where we are now — and do the best we can with what we're left with and what we've created anew.
|I really worked to create a healthy and comfortable environment for them.|
What will you do to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this year? Are you planning anything special?
I am singing at the memorial with the New York Pops and Brian Stokes Mitchell. We will do a duet, and then I will close the ceremony alone by singing "Human Heart" from Once on This Island. Then I am taking the girls to the Memorial Museum… they've never been there. Calvin's mother and I are also doing a recording for StoryCorps, [which is] an organization whose goal is to record at least one remembrance for each of the victims of the terrorist attacks to be held in the Library of Congress and at the Memorial Museum.
Do you find that the passage of time helps at all with accepting what happened or gives you any more peace?
As you know, I was pregnant at the time of the original attacks, and so I didn't really allow myself to grieve very heavily. I kind of went into a fast-forward motion with regards to being OK for my daughters, and I wanted to make sure that my girls had a sane mom and everything. I used to say all the time: "They lost their father; they can't lose their mother, too." So I really worked to create a healthy and comfortable environment for them.
The interesting thing is that in the last couple of years, I've been starting to relax a little with that, and the grief has been creeping in for me… not really just for the loss, but for what I had to go through and survive. I've been feeling that grief and I never could even say that before, because I felt it would be completely selfish. But finally, I'm able to say it — and sometimes I cry when I really feel the deep pain and terror of it. I feel that more now than I ever did back then. I mean, back then… I was just scared to death… like, how am I supposed to do this?
But now, at times, I can actually feel the drama of it. For example: I had to put together this thing for the museum, and that meant I had to go through all these pictures and memorabilia and stuff for Calvin. And it was literally the hardest thing I've had to do. And thank goodness for my husband, Derek. I couldn't do it by myself. I was a mess. He came into our storage unit and I was sitting on the floor crying, and he was like, "Oh no, what happened?" I think I always have tried to keep that part of my life from him in a way, because you know, he's my husband, and I don't want him to see me crying about my late husband. But that day it happened, and Derek sat with me and let me cry and was like, "OK, honey, we're going to do this together." He went through the whole process with me… looked through every box, every picture, he filled out the forms for me, he called the museum to get the exact details and he took it to the post office and mailed it for me. Is that awesome or what? He really held up for me that day, and I was so grateful to him. I still am.
What do you hope that people commemorating 9/11 this year — as it is the 10th year anniversary — remember the most?
That we are united as a country, and that we are victorious. We will move on, we'll be stronger than we were before, and that you cannot keep us down. Take that, you terrorists of the world! You can take people from us, but we will survive — and we will still have a special place in our hearts for those people that we lost and that we love. Love is an energy that is transferred from one to another, and it never dies.
We first spoke with LaChanze about her experiences in 2006, five years after the 9/11 attacks. For our original interview with the actress, read How Her Heart Healed.
Kimberly Dawn Neumann (www.KDNeumann.com) is a New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Women's Health, Marie Claire, Maxim and more. A frequent online contributor for Match.com's Happen magazine, she's also the author of The Real Reasons Men Commit and Sex Comes First as well as the founder of www.DatingDivaDaily.com. She remembers that day like it was yesterday… and always will.