Michelle Lang

Although my words will never capture her spirit, goodness and professionalism, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve written about my friend and colleague, Michelle Lang, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan while on assignment for Canwest News Service on Dec. 30, 2009.

The following are in the order they appeared in the Calgary Herald.

Tears flow for adored, tenacious reporter

– copyright – Calgary Herald
Thu Dec 31 2009

Whatever follows will not be good enough to honour the memory of Michelle Lang. I’ll try and get through it, somehow, because it is what we do.

I’ve cried Afghan tears before, at the funerals of fallen Calgary soldiers Capt. Nichola Goddard and Cpl. Nathan Hornburg, but it was never like this. Hell, I can barely see the keyboard through the tears.

There are many people in our newsroom who were closer to Michelle than I, but she was a confidante and valued colleague, and I loved her as friend and as the dedicated professional that she exemplified every day. I often told her she worked too hard. She retorted that she was too early in her career to be as lazy as me.

We shared desk space together — “podmates,” we would say — and it hurts so much to see the area next to me so empty now. On Michelle’s cluttered desk is a notepad, and among the scribbles is written “pastoral care — grief counselling,” probably for a story idea on a subject that many of us here seem so desperately in need of today.

As we got the horrible confirmation Wednesday from Lorne Motley, our editor-in-chief, stunned colleagues hugged and cried. We had heard the rumours earlier in the day, that Michelle had been killed by a roadside bomb en route to do a story on reconstruction efforts. She was outside the safe confines of Kandahar Airfield, and my first thought was that I wished it was me rather than her. All I ever wanted to be was a foreign correspondent. But Michelle was young, Afghanistan was a better “career move” for her, and off she went with commitment, although not without some trepidation.

We talked about it a bit, but not at length. Michelle told me that her mom was scared about her Afghanistan assignment. She also told me of the day not long ago when she filled out the Department of National Defence forms regarding next of kin, which made her feel nervous. I encouraged her, even envied her, but told her that if anything bad happened to her over there, I would be “very upset.”

Upset doesn’t begin to describe it. Like most everyone in our sad newsroom, I’m numb and haven’t stopped sobbing all day. I cannot grasp that Michelle, one of the nicest people I have ever known, is gone.

I’m thinking about some of the ski days we had and of the pub night we organized for her just before her departure for Afghanistan. The plan was to buy her a First World War army helmet at a military surplus store and have everybody sign it, but I never got around to it, so instead I bought her a plate of nachos. At least I got to say a feeble goodbye, and her last e-mail to me was a thank you for organizing the evening. I was going to send her an e-mail in Afghanistan the other day, but never got around to it, too stupidly caught up in my own little world.

One of the hardest things Wednesday was talking to my former colleague, Robin Summerfield, a talented, witty writer who was one of Michelle’s best buddies. Because it was mostly emotional blubber, I asked her to send me a few thoughts.

“I admired her tenacity and fearlessness as a reporter,” Robin wrote. “It was always a comfort seeing her across the newsroom, sitting at her desk, furiously working the phone. She could be tough, when she had to be. Her desk was messy, complete with her special filing system: a tower of papers, reports and press releases. Michelle said she knew exactly where everything was filed.”

Michelle e-mailed Robin on Christmas Eve, saying she had just reported on the death of Canadian soldier Lt. Andrew Nuttall of Victoria.

“So sad. Have to do the ramp ceremony today,” Michelle wrote. “I hope I don’t cry. Will be hard.”

Today, it is hard for us, Michelle. You won the highest accolade your profession can bestow, a National Newspaper Award for your coverage of health care. It was inevitable that it would come your way, and it hurts to wonder where you would have gone and the things you might have done. Your are remembered, loved, and will remain an inspiration in a newsroom where you are respected and adored.

For us, there can never be too much Michelle

– copyright – Calgary Herald
Sat Jan 9 2010

In what has been a very grim week in the newsroom, some of us managed our first real laugh the other day as we huddled around Michelle’s cubicle, which I shared with her for six years.

“For God’s sake, Lang, keep your crap on your side of the desk,” I muttered, looking at the touching collection of flowers that has overtaken the entire space. Those in earshot chuckled with glee. The grief counsellors tell us this is part of the healing process.

Michelle Lang was always apologizing for her clutter. Notebooks, papers, reports, newspapers, press releases, her water bottle, purse and the unending detritus that journalists hoard were forever creeping into my half of the pod. It was a bit like living with a big dog that jumps onto the bed at night, muscling out the humans for space.

It has now been nine days since we got the devastating news of Michelle’s death, killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan along with four Canadian soldiers on the outskirts of Kandahar. In that time, I’ve wondered about reader fatigue and if there is too much Michelle on our pages. My concern lasted about a minute.

Forgive us our public grief, but for those of us at this newspaper, there can never be too much Michelle. One of the principle elements of journalism is proximity of time and place. It is why we devote so much effort to stories like the seven Strathcona-Tweedsmuir students killed in an avalanche in 2003. The closer to home, the bigger the story, and Michelle is as close as it gets for us. She is family.

Another driving principle of journalism is that of historic firsts. Michelle, the first Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan, has become to me much like Capt. Nichola Goddard of Calgary, who became Canada’s first female combat fatality when she was killed in Afghanistan in 2003. Both are sadly etched in history.

These are among the reasons why you will see the full-page memorial tribute in today’s paper, which is also running in every Canwest daily, and why there will be much more to come from her funeral next week in Vancouver and any planned memorial in Calgary.

The coverage of Michelle’s death also reminds us, and hopefully our readers, of all 138 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Many of us here were eager to learn as much as we could of the young men who died with Michelle — Sgt. George Miok, 28, and Cpl. Zachery McCormack, 21, both of Edmonton; Sgt. Kirk Taylor, 28, of Yarmouth N.S.; and Pte. Garrett Chidley, 21, of Cambridge, Ont.

We grieved for them and their families, but it would be dishonest not to admit that we were overwhelmingly more consumed by the death of our beloved colleague, age 34, a talented, beautiful bride-to-be. We feel compelled to tell you about her professionalism, her goodness, her clutter, and of the many little things that people have done to help us through the darkness.

Earlier this week, four of Michelle’s closest colleagues were coming home from her repatriation ceremony in Trenton when a soldier overheard them talking and bought them a drink. He slipped away before they could thank him.

We could fill the paper telling you about similar expressions of support. It would be much more rewarding to us than writing about public policy issues, but the paper must go on. In the daily news business, it is not possible to shut down the paper to take time to grieve.

Our editor has told us repeatedly how proud he is that we have managed to type through the tears during this crisis. It is nice to be thought of this way, but what we do is hardly as noble as the work of soldiers who strap on body armour and patrol the same soil where their comrades have been killed.

Eventually, we will turn the page. For now, allow us our moment. On Monday, many of us will be in Vancouver for Michelle’s funeral. Tuesday’s paper will come out, as it always does. In other circumstances, Michelle would have been the one staying here late, making it so.

Michelle a true inspiration

-copyright- The Calgary Herald
Tue Jan 12 2010

Three years before Michelle Lang was born, her parents travelled through Afghanistan, a place few westerners ventured or even knew existed, back in 1972.

Art and Sandra Lang had been in Europe, as was the ritual of so many young Canadians in those days, when, finding themselves in Turkey, they decided to keep going.

They took off in a VW bus and journeyed through Iran, into Afghanistan and through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, destination India. It was a far less dangerous adventure than their daughter would embark upon 37 years later.

“You couldn’t do it today,” Art Lang said Sunday evening at the family home, which the Langs graciously opened to some of Michelle’s closest friends and colleagues from the Calgary Herald. Wine was poured, cheese was nibbled, hugs were given.

Journalists are supposed to be good with words, but it is difficult to know what to say in such a setting, and I never properly told Art and Sandra what an honour it was to finally meet the parents who had raised such a wonderful daughter.

On Monday, Art spoke publicly for the first time about Michelle — “our baby, our daughter, our shining star” — who was killed by an improvised explosive device along with four Canadian soldiers on the outskirts of Kandahar city on Dec. 30.

“Michelle was always interested in this country,” he said as a slide show played behind him of photos that he took nearly four decades ago. Among the pictures was one of a group of Afghan children — “just normal people enjoying themselves when tragedy after tragedy showed up and war followed war.”

Michelle Lang, the first Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan, wanted so much to tell the story of the Afghan people that her parents encountered. Her death, which to most of us at the Calgary Herald still does not feel quite real, ended a brilliant and promising young career of a good person — “almost too sweet to be a reporter,” as one of her friends told the service.

“I hope for all of us that this is not a futile effort,” her father said. “Let us hope that there will be such an outcome. That would be a tribute to her and we will feel that her death and all the other deaths were not in vain.”

At the end of the service, the Langs chose to play the Beatles song, Michelle, after which she was named. Everybody in our row hung our heads and sobbed. After 12 days of utter grief, our colleague’s casket was wheeled away, and we collapsed in each other’s arms.

Among those who spoke was Michelle’s fiance, Michael Louie. They were to be married in July.

Sarah Noble, one of Michelle’s oldest friends, was to speak at their wedding. Instead, she eulogized her Monday, calling it tragic and unfair.

Also speaking was Robin Summerfield, a former Herald writer who was among Michelle’s close circle of female friends — a group of dedicated journalists, several of them National Newspaper Award winners, all of them young and pretty, drawn together in Calgary because each was from somewhere else.

Having them around me was like going to work every day in a real-life episode of Sex and the City, and it was touching to see them united with Michelle one last time. Robin, Colette Derworiz, Gwendolyn Richards, Renata D’Aliesio, Kelly Cryderman — the latter two also did stints in Afghanistan — along with Calgary native Sherri Zickefoose and those of us privileged to be on the periphery.

“I knew immediately that this was a woman worth knowing,” Summerfield said. “I felt like she was family.”

Through nearly two hours, friends and family paid tribute to Lang, “the rarest of breeds,” as Herald editor-in-chief Lorne Motley told the crowd.

Sweet, fabulous, caring, kind, unswervingly fair in her profession, humble despite winning awards and with a perfect balance in her personal and professional life — the accolades are so perfect they almost seem fake. But I can tell you, they are not. Michelle Lang inspired many people.

For me, New Year’s Day was particularly difficult, just three days after Michelle’s death. I made a resolution, one that I must try and keep, for a change.

It was not a resolution for 2010, but a resolution for life — that I would try from that day forward to be as good a journalist and as good a person as Michelle Lang.


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