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The Lives Left Behind

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LaChanze Sapp-Gooding

Actress and mother of two
LaChanze Sapp-Gooding has a light-up-the-room smile and the resilience of a show-must-go-on Broadway trouper. Sitting in the living room of her high-floor Riverdale apartment, with a serene view of the Hudson River, Sapp-Gooding, dressed in a sexy lace top and flowered skirt, is in full emotional throttle today.

An actress who has been nominated for a Tony Award, she is juggling a variety of roles, including doting mom to two little kids ("Celia, honey, mommy's going to talk now, stop trying to break Meryl's tape recorder") and furious widow ("There are days when I want to take a sledgehammer and crack every window on Fifth Avenue"). But most of all, she is an artist who has found solace in immersing herself in fictional characters. "I'm so grateful that I have a little bit of a name in New York," says Sapp-Gooding, who has been cast in a revival of the Broadway musical Baby, slated for next year.

Sapp-Gooding is a member of that most heartbreaking Twin Towers sorority -- widows who were pregnant on September 11. Married to Calvin Gooding, a trader in international equities at Cantor Fitzgerald, she says, "It meant a lot for us to raise happy African-American children in this world. We were on a mission to do this together." Her younger sister, Michelle Mackey, was at the hospital on October 23 when Sapp-Gooding gave birth to her second daughter, Zaya. "It was the saddest moment in our lives, but a huge sigh of relief because we were so worried about the baby," Mackey says.

Sapp-Gooding's face brightens as she talks about how she and Calvin met. It all began with a head shot and a haircut. "I used to get my hair done at this salon called Scissors," she recalls. Calvin went there, too, and saw her photo on the wall, pestering the barber unsuccessfully for her number. Then, on Memorial Day weekend in 1996, Sapp-Gooding was at the restaurant B. Smith's with a girlfriend, and Calvin walked by. "He was so handsome. My girlfriend and I toasted, and we both said, 'I'll drink to that.' " Calvin strolled into the bar, came by her table, and asked, "Are you an actress? I've been trying to meet you for two years. Can I take you out for ice cream, dinner, a trip to the moon?"

But Sapp-Gooding, who grew up in the Florida panhandle and attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, soon accepted a role in the national production of Ragtime and told Calvin she would be spending the next year in Los Angeles; she was stunned when he arranged to be transferred to Cantor's L.A. office. "I didn't know he was that serious about me," she says. The couple married in 1998.

On September 10, their last night together, their daughter Celia was fussing, so Calvin went off to sleep in her room, to keep the child quiet so LaChanze could get some rest. "I remember getting up at 3 a.m. and going to Celia's room," she says. "He was just laying there, sound asleep on the floor with her on his chest." She kissed her husband good-bye as he headed off to work, then fell back to sleep in a recliner, woken with a start by a call from a family member alerting her of the attacks at the Twin Towers. "I was watching TV, and I kept counting down the squares to get to his floor, and there it was."

Sapp-Gooding says her biggest challenge last fall was to try to hold it together in front of the children. "After I had the baby, I didn't want to be angry, because I was nursing. But there were times I was so sad that my 2-year-old would crawl over to me and say, 'Mommy, what's the matter?' But I couldn't stop crying."

What brought her back from crippling depression was an acting job, a role in The Vagina Monologues last December. Offered the part by the play's author, Eve Ensler, Sapp-Gooding was initially nervous about going back to work, but says, "I got to be funny and happy and loved for an hour and a half. It was the best thing for me. It kick-started me back into wanting to be pretty again, into being LaChanze again, sans husband, sans children, just me."

She threw herself into auditions this winter and spring; flying off to Montreal to do a commercial, landing the Baby role as well as the lead for a workshop next year of a new musical, Dessa Rose, about an African-American slave. She has felt pressured to work partially because she worries about money: Calvin didn't buy life insurance.

She can't help but be upset by the million-dollar disparity between what civilian spouses and the firefighter and police widows and widowers -- the beneficiaries of generous pensions and enormous charity donations -- are receiving. "I don't begrudge them a dime, but the organizers of these funds ought to consider the rest of us. I've got a long haul ahead of me."

She remains wary about dating. "I think, I'd like to go to a movie and have a glass of wine. When I think about being with another man, being in the space of conversation with a man who may be attracted to me, it makes me so nervous," she says.

In July, Sapp-Gooding started seeing a psychiatrist, and at his suggestion she's taking a work break this fall -- with the exception of a one-night performance at Lincoln Center in November (she'll sing songs -- from "That's All" to "Mockingbird" -- that reflect her feelings about Calvin and her children). "My life had gotten ahead of me," says Sapp-Gooding. "I couldn't catch the reins. I was trying to do too much, and it was affecting my patience with my children. I was starting to snap at my babies, and I didn't like it.

"He's been teaching me balance," she says. "He said to me, 'You can talk all you want about your relationship with Calvin and how he died, but what we're here to do is work on you. There's no more you and Calvin. We've got to make you strong again.' I found that comforting."


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