'I'm going to see her in heaven'
Three months later, Nichole Lang-Veru's parents are devastated by the loss of their daughter, one of 41 killed nationwide this flu season.
By ELISABETH DYER
Published April 21, 2007
CULBREATH HEIGHTS -- Diana Lang's cell phone played a special ring tone April 12. Her daughter, Nichole, had programmed it months earlier as a reminder of her 10th birthday.
That was before she died Dec. 27 -- of the flu.
Nichole was the first in Florida to die this season from the common but rarely deadly virus.
Nationwide, 41 children have died during the current flu season, which typically ends at the close of this month, said Curtis Allen, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flu-related deaths, he said, are "unusual."
Nichole had been healthy and was feeling fine until Dec. 23. Four days after that, she was gone. Her parents don't want to talk about her last days.
Three months later, her family, friends and classmates struggle to cope with the sudden and surprising loss of a little girl with a quick smile and a gentle heart.
Nichole's desk sits empty and bare at the middle of Lynn Heller's classroom at Dale Mabry Elementary School. The class decided to keep it as a silent memorial.
"She'll always be a member of our class," Heller says.
In the days following the tragedy, she reassured her students that Nichole's death was rare - not to fear it would happen to them if they got sick.
Still today, a student occasionally shares a memory of Nichole, and Heller cries. She tells her students: It's okay to be sad. It's okay to cry.
Another teacher framed a photo of Nichole taken in class and gave it to them.
"I asked the children, do we want to put it up now?" Heller remembered. "Some said we're not ready yet."
In March, they were finally ready. Now the photo sits on top of a bookshelf.
To honor her birthday, Nichole's father, Kevin Lang, built a garden outside Nichole's classroom, with a plaque that commemorates her life. The school held a candlelight vigil and a program for the event.
In the garden, classmates planted pink and purple flowers -- Nichole's favorite colors.
Kevin remembers his daughter diving from his shoulders into the family's backyard pool on Price Avenue. She had been so courageous, he said.
It was those kinds of memories that he and his wife could no longer bear. They put their home up for sale and moved with their daughter, Jessica, to a rental on Corona Street.
People often asked if Jessica and Nichole were twins, although Jessica was three years older. Their mother devoted herself to their care, never working outside the home.
Diana remembers snapping photos of Nichole with her cell phone camera. Nichole would play psychiatrist as they waited in the car each day for Jessica to get out of school. She asked her mom questions:
How do you feel about dad?
How do you feel about the family dog Casey?
"She was my best friend," Diana said. "She was so beautiful."
The family always ate dinner together. When Diana made green soup -- a vegetable blend the girls hated, but mom insisted they eat -- their dad took them on midnight runs to McDonald's. They still save a place for Nichole at the table. In her memory, a chair is pushed against the wall so no one else will sit there.
The girls had their own rooms, but at night preferred to pile into the king-sized bed with mom and dad. They hugged each other in their sleep and snuggled with their parents.
Nichole loved to write notes, which her family still finds tucked in calendars and odds and ends that they moved to the new house.
One reads: Remember I'll always love you no mater what.
"I may not be the richest man," Kevin said. "But we were millionaires when it came to love.
"I drive around South Tampa for hours just crying and screaming to myself," Kevin said. He knows other drivers see him and wonder what's wrong, he said.
But the Langs are finding ways to cope.
They left Monday for a two-week mission to Israel with fellow members of Davis Islands Baptist Church. Diana hopes to find strength there.
"I'm looking for God," she said. "I've got to have faith that someday I'm going to see her in heaven."
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At sunset on Nichole's birthday, dozens of children, their parents and faculty came to the school to celebrate her life. They ate yellow rice, chicken and pizza and lit candles.
In long flowing skirts, Nichole's sister, Jessica, and her cousin, Danielle, performed a Colombian dance that Nichole had danced with them during a program last year.
Nichole's father shared stories of his sweet, shy daughter. He told how she befriended lonely kids. How she followed her sister around and longed to one day travel the world.
As he spoke, photos of Nichole, often clutching her stuffed bear Tuco, flashed on a wall behind the garden and tears flowed.
She used to ask him, "Daddy, how much do you love me?"
He would reply: "Ah, just a little," both knowing the truth exceeded words.
Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.