How Her Heart Healed
5 years after losing her husband on 9/11, actress LaChanze reveals how she found love again.
n September 11, 2001, the unthinkable happened. America woke up to terrorist attacks. That day, the world changed. We all had to try to make sense of what had happened and how to go forward with our lives in the face of such horrifying events. And those who lost someone they loved on that day faced an even bigger challenge — picking up the pieces of their suddenly shattered lives.
Standing among the heartbroken was LaChanze, a gifted Broadway actress with an infant daughter, another little girl on the way (she gave birth six
weeks after September 11th) and a bond trader husband, Calvin Gooding, who did not make it out of his office at Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center. In one day, her life went from picture-perfect to being devastated by tragedy. Here's how she faced an uncertain future, and what it took for her heart to heal.
|I was just trying to make sure I had enough energy to get up and feed my newborn.|
Dealing with those early, dark days
"People ask me, 'How was your faith in God at that time?' and the truth is, I was mad at Him," says LaChanze, recalling the time right after 9/11. "It was like that saying, You can't see the tree when you are standing underneath it. I was really under the tree; I couldn't see."
In fact, it took everything LaChanze had to get through those first months without Calvin. "I was just trying to make sure I had enough energy to get up and feed my newborn," she says. And in the process, she couldn't help but wish for someone to be strong for her, but she wasn't ready to think about it being anyone other than Calvin. "I wanted my husband back... he was my strength, and I remember thinking, 'I wish he were here,' not 'I wish there was someone else for me.'"
In truth, she didn't think she'd ever find love again. "I was prepared to be a widow taking my husband's memory to the grave," says LaChanze. But after a while, she began to miss having intimacy and closeness as a part of her life, and as a part of being a woman.
Trying to date again
So, almost two years after 9/11, she decided to dip her toe back into the dating world. "It was something I thought I should do to try to heal," says LaChanze. "I needed to test myself and just see how it felt to be in the presence of someone else... to get those juices flowing, so to speak." But what she discovered instead was a hesitation to commit and a lack of enthusiasm for the singles scene. "Not only was it tough to explain my situation to men, but I was older and had been married and really in love, so I knew what I wanted."
She also found herself measuring her dates against her late husband. "Whenever I would go out with a guy, I would really miss Calvin even more. I compared everyone to him, and no one was pulling at my heart strings the way he had," says LaChanze. "I wanted instant trust — not to have to work to find out if he was nice or a good person. I didn't have the energy for that. I wanted to save the energy for my children."
That summer, however, she did meet a man who reminded her how to enjoy dating. "I knew it wasn't serious, he knew it wasn't serious, but he was just so much fun to go out with that we had a wonderful couple of months," says LaChanze. And even though he wasn't the right person, he reopened her to the idea of having a "relationship" again. "One of my girlfriends says he was my 'sorbet' in that he cleansed my palate so I could be ready for someone special to come along," laughs LaChanze.
How her path crossed with his
Would someone special appear? And if so, when? Those thoughts weren't weighing heavily on LaChanze in December of 2003. Rather, Calvin was still very much
in LaChanze's heart, and she decided to commission an artwork commemorating her late husband as a gift for the law firm that helped her with the 9/11 aftermath. She chose Atlanta artist Derek Fordjour — who created a lovely work showing LaChanze's girls in the future, at about ages 10 and 11, looking at an abstract painting of their father.
|I started to realize Calvin would be happy that I was continuing with my life.|
What she didn't realize was that her choice of artist would also change her life.
"In the beginning, Derek was just this artist I had hired," LaChanze recalls. "But because he wanted to know more about my life and my past with Calvin so he could truly create something that expressed my feelings of gratitude to this firm, I had to open up and talk to him."
This resulted in many late-night conversations between LaChanze and Derek after she had put her girls to bed. "He really needed to know what I was going through for his work, so we had to talk a lot about how I felt being a single mom, how I felt for Calvin, what our love was like, how I felt about 9/11, how I felt about living after 9/11, where my heart was, where my spirit was... very intimate and sensitive questions," says LaChanze. "And I found myself bonding with him as he gave me the room to talk. He was this voice on the other end of the phone and our conversations became a place for me to grieve that wasn't a therapist, wasn't family, it was just this other very sensitive listening ear."
Soon, LaChanze couldn't wait for that part of the day to come when she could curl up on the couch in her sweats and cradle the phone as she and Derek chatted until dawn. "We would talk and talk and talk, and I got really close to him very quickly," she says.
When she finally met the man face-to-face
After two months of all-night phone fests, Derek finally flew to New York City — ostensibly to see LaChanze's girls, since he'd made the decision to incorporate them into his painting by then — but also for his first in-person meeting with the woman herself. "When he came up at that time, we just felt so connected to each other because we'd already communicated on such an intense level," says LaChanze. "So when I finally met him, I'd already been intimate with him... and I don't mean physically, but in the way where I could open my heart and trust someone again." And much to her surprise, she discovered she was also falling in love.
The feeling was mutual, and after their first visit, Derek and LaChanze realized they might stand a chance at having a very healthy relationship. So the visits back and forth to New York City and Atlanta became more frequent. The road to a replenished heart was not easily paved for LaChanze, however. "It took a good year for me to not feel secretly guilty when I would find myself really enjoying my time with Derek, because I would feel like my late husband was there, watching and disapproving," she admits. "There was guilt there for me, like I was cheating or something; it was a while before those feelings went away, but eventually, when things got serious, I started to realize Calvin would be happy that I was continuing with my life."
But how would her family feel?
And then there was the issue of her girls to consider. "I was very concerned about bringing someone into their lives, not knowing if it was the right decision for them," says LaChanze. So she and Derek started slowly by having him come around a little more frequently to visit. "Because children don't lie, I wanted to sort of find out from them if this was the right thing... I mean, if they didn't react to him in a positive way, then I would know that this wasn't going to work." Fortunately, however, they adored Derek right from the beginning.
About 10 months after they started dating, Derek proposed to LaChanze just before Christmas — and she accepted. "I knew I was ready to say 'yes' because we had already been together all of these months and I was just so in love with him. And my daughters were crazy about him and got along beautifully with his son, and we just knew that we all wanted to spend time together permanently," says LaChanze. The couple married on July 30, 2005, and began their lives as a new, blended family. Life seems especially sweet lately for LaChanze — both personally and professionally. She won the 2006 Tony Award for her amazing performance as "Celie" in the Broadway production of The Color Purple.
And what about that tree that LaChanze said she couldn't see because she was standing right under it? "Now that I've had some space, I can see how my life was definitely ordained and blessed because so many great things have happened," she explains. "But the number-one thing that 9/11 taught me was that our time here is special and not promised. It's a gift to live in the present, and we have to take advantage of it. Find the good. Find the joy. Look for love, and forgive."
It seems LaChanze's heart has not only mended, it's grown.
This article originally appeared in 2006, five years after the tragic events of September 11. To learn how LaChanze's life has changed since then, read How Her Heart Healed A Decade After 9/11.
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 as well as the founder of www.DatingDivaDaily.com.