“I Want to Forgive”
In 1985, Wilma Derksen faced the unimaginable: the murder of her young daughter. Three decades later, she looks back on her complicated journey out of the darkness. FROM THE WAY OF LETTING GO
At the end of the most horrific day, January 17, 1985, there was a knock on the door of our Winnipeg home. I glanced at the clock; it was 10 p.m.
I opened the door, and there was a stranger in black standing against the dark night.
“I too am a parent of a murdered child,” he said, introducing himself. I could feel the blood drain from my face.
I was now a parent of a murdered child. At around noon, we had heard that the body of Candace, our 13-year-old daughter, had been discovered by an employee of Alsip Brick, Tile and Lumber Company as he was checking an abandoned shed on the yard.
Who was this man at our door? Every stranger was now a suspect. Everyone was a potential murderer.
“I have come to tell you what to expect next,” he said.
It was hard to believe that only seven weeks ago we had been an unknown, unnoticed, happy family. Cliff, my husband, was a program director for one of the largest summer camps in Manitoba, and we had three children: Candace was our oldest, Odia was nine and Syras was three. I was working my way into a journalism career.
Candace had called from school that Friday to ask for a ride home. Ordinarily I would have picked her up, but I was running late. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind walking so that by the time she returned I would be finished with my writing project. I promised to buy party food for her sleepover that weekend.
She said she didn’t mind at all and then told me, rather breathlessly, that she had just had her face washed with snow by David, a schoolmate. The way she said his name, I knew he was special to her.
When she didn’t come through the door at the expected time, a little after 4 p.m., I had a sinking feeling. I quickly packed up the younger children and drove down the street looking for her. Then I went to pick up Cliff from the office. Once home, we started calling all of her friends and our friends and family until we exhausted our leads. Around 10 p.m. we called the police.
OUR DAUGHTER’S disappearance sparked Winnipeg’s most comprehensive missing person search to date. We
plastered the city with posters reading “Have you seen Candace?” For seven weeks we pleaded with the public to help us find her, exposing our shattered lives. Now that her body had been discovered, we knew for certain someone had abducted her, taken her to a shed, tied her hands and feet, and left her there to die in the plunging temperatures of the winter’s first extreme cold front.
We were exhausted; it had been a full day already. After hearing from the police, we drove to the hospital morgue to identify her body. After that, friends had come by with food and words of comfort.
Now this stranger had appeared on our doorstep with the promise of answers to questions we were just beginning to ask.
“My daughter was murdered too,” he began. That’s when we recognized him from past TV news reports. It was a well-known local story. There were no tears as he spoke. But then again, I could talk about my daughter without tears as well. Sometimes I cried uncontrollably; other times I was emotionless.
“She was murdered at the doughnut shop,” he continued. He seemed to have told his story many times.
As he spoke, I kept wondering what had compelled him to come to our house late at night.
He said he couldn’t work anymore because he couldn’t focus on anything but the murder of his daughter. He told us every detail about the day she was killed.
He pulled out a collection of black notebooks from his suit jacket. He had recorded all the court proceedings, meticulously and in detail. There had been two trials already. “I won’t rest until there is justice.” He kept shaking his head, “I’ve lost so much—everything.”
And then he paused. “I’ve even lost the memory of my daughter.”
The act of murder had taken his daughter, but the aftermath of murder had taken his life. The worst part was that there was no end in sight for him.
“My daughter was murdered too,” he began. That’s when we recognized
him from past TV news reports.
We sat stunned and horrified. I couldn’t believe his audacity—telling us this on the worst day of our lives. Yet I listened intently, sensing there had to be a reason for his coming.
I knew the potential effects of this trauma on our marriage and relationships. I knew the potential damage that could be caused by this publicity we’d so desperately cultivated and that would now remain focused on us.
I was obsessed with watching the neighbours. I suspected everyone of having something to do with Candace’s disappearance. I couldn’t read, eat or breathe without pain. Sleep was elusive.
I knew exactly what this strange man was talking about.
At midnight, our visitor left and my husband and I went to bed. We were scared. We had just lost our child. Were we going to lose everything? Was this the beginning of a spiral that would leave us dark, desperate and insensitive to everything around us?
There had to be another way. LIGHTS FROM THE TV cameras had dimmed, and I thought the press conference was over. We had talked entirely about our daughter—relieved that we had found her, shocked that she had been murdered and thankful for everyone who had been searching for her. Just as we were about to leave, someone asked the question.
“And what about the person who murdered your daughter?”
The reporter’s question hung in the air as we just sat there.
We were in a fog. We had been planning Candace’s funeral. I will never forget going into the display room filled with coffins. Candace will suddenly show up and tell us to stop this nonsense, I kept thinking. But it was real.
Driving back home, as Cliff and I reviewed our decisions regarding the funeral, we started fighting.
The argument made us all the more worried we were heading for emotional disaster, for the same torment as our 10 p.m. stranger. For me, it was something I called the abyss.
The argument made us worried we were heading for emotional disaster.
It was something I called the abyss.
I had faced it at the age of 30, seven years before Candace disappeared.
We were living in the small town of North Battleford, Sask. Cliff had just accepted a position as pastor of a small church, and I thought I would finally be free to pursue my dreams. Since I had supported him through college, it was now my turn to finish university—but we had two little girls who needed my full attention.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a sadness I didn’t understand. I had a wonderful husband and delightful children, but I could barely get through the days.
My abyss would not be denied. Living in a new community, I felt trapped at home without any social supports in place. Throw in a little postpartum depression, and I knew I was in a dangerous place.
The only way I could deal with it was to sneak out late at night when my family was sound asleep—safe— and get into our car and race across the prairie. I needed to feel as if I were flying.
“Let go,” I must have told myself a million times. “Don’t hang on. Let the past go and find something new.”
THE TERM “FORGIVE” derives from “to give” or “to grant,” as in “to give up.” To me, it has always meant relinquishing my right to do what comes naturally and to deliberately choose what my response will be. Sometimes the outcome is the same, but the process is different. Most often, there are new, astonishing results.
From a young age, through my Mennonite roots, I had learned that forgiveness was a viable option. I had learned it wasn’t a miracle drug but a process that demanded patience, creativity, faith, humility and a deep love.
Now the reporter’s question was hanging in the air: “And what about the person who murdered your daughter?” Cliff was the first to answer it. He said it with assurance: “We forgive.” I would do the only thing I knew how to do; I would let go. But this time I was facing an abyss far more dangerous than the one I had escaped before.
I didn’t want God to know I had other children. I couldn’t entrust them
to a God who had let Candace die.
I envied my husband’s confidence; I still do. I am a reluctant forgiver— a determined but reluctant forgiver who needs a lot of time.
I answered the question honestly. “I want to forgive.”
I was stunned the next day that our attitude was what had grabbed the attention of the city. I had thought the stories would focus on the murder. They didn’t.
After the funeral, we were again shocked as the newspaper headlines—both papers, front page— jumped out at us. “Peace Triumphs!” said the Winnipeg Sun, which devoted the first four pages to our story. The piece in the Winnipeg Free Press centred on Candace. Both suggested that somehow, in all of this tragedy, good had triumphed.
My father, who was staying with us, had been unusually quiet. I watched his reactions as he read the stories. When he laid down the paper, a new peace was on his face.
“Now I understand,” he said softly. “On the train trip here, I was so puzzled. I wondered how God could allow something like this to happen. But now I know.”
AT FIRST I REMEMBER being so confident about God. I had no choice really—everything was out of control and we needed a higher power. But over the years, slowly, surely, my resentment grew. God hadn’t helped us find Candace when it was critical. When her body was discovered, he didn’t help us find the person responsible. When the lies and innuendoes were swirling regarding our family’s possible involvement in her death, he didn’t provide resolution. When it came to the real issues, like good and evil, he had left the building a long time ago.
We shouldn’t be surprised if the criminal violation of society’s moral code and social contract calls into question the order of the universe and the role of the Creator in all of this. But anger toward God can result in a dreadful darkness.
I remember driving home one day in 1990, worried about Odia. Now that she was a teenager, she was manifesting the usual angst.
What to do about Odia? My fallback position was always to pray— give it to God. But I couldn’t.
I was puzzled. I had no trouble praying for Candace’s legacy or my work; why didn’t I want to pray for Syras or Odia? Then I realized I didn’t want God to know I had other children. I couldn’t entrust them to a God who had let Candace die.
It is hard to remain pure after being violated. It is hard to resist acting out on one’s frustrations.
In dealing with doubt and anger toward God, we have two options, depending on our theology. If we think God is in control of everything
that happens and is the one who allowed the violation, we would have to forgive him and assume he made a mistake. However, if we believe God didn’t make a mistake, we might have to recognize that, though he’s the creator of the universe and controls the science of our world, he has given us freedom of choice. Life happens. Evil exists.
IT WAS 22 YEARS after Candace’s murder. I was just about to call Cliff on his cell when I noticed his van pull up the driveway.
We were expecting the police; they were coming to tell us something. We had been in contact with them over the years, but there was something different about this visit.
A few moments later, three officers were at our door. I invited them into the living room and hung their heavy leather jackets in the closet.
I don’t remember the conversation word for word, but it went something like this:
“We found him,” he said. “We found the man who murdered Candace.” They were waiting for a response. “Are you sure?” I said finally.
“Yes.” I looked at each one of them separately. They all nodded.
“Do we know him?”
“No, you don’t,” said the man who started the conversation.
He leaned slightly forward. “And I just want to let you know it isn’t anyone known to your family.”
The supervisor, who was sitting beside me, repeated, “It isn’t anyone you know.”
“No one we know,” I repeated, in disbelief.
“Aren’t you relieved?”
We nodded. Our poor, traumatized minds could not absorb it. It was hard to erase 22 years of careful defense-building in one second.
They told us they would be picking him up in two to six weeks and that they had a team of 12 officers working on the case.
We talked about every detail, again and again. Once we were finally satisfied, they left. Could justice be a possibility after all this time?
OVER THE YEARS I’ve become more and more convinced that we need to teach the way of forgiveness as an option. But the research shows that even though people think this approach is important, not many know how to enact it.
In 1997, I was invited to Washington, D.C., for a round-table discussion on forgiveness organized by Neighbors Who Care and Prison Fellowship Ministries. I had just begun my research in earnest and was looking for words and ideas to help crime victims heal. I thought that if I only found the right definition of “forgiveness,”
I could develop a wonderful program of healing and justice.
I hoped I would find it at this twoday meeting of learned theologians. But as the proceedings unfolded, I became anxious. Even though the words were beautiful, there was nothing for the group of crime victims at home awaiting my return.
Half an hour before we were to leave, someone asked, “Have we defined forgiveness yet?”
The room was quiet. There were some valiant attempts to summarize the discussions, but from where I was sitting, they all fell flat.
It was still dark when I climbed into the back seat of the taxi at 5 a.m. the next day, miserable.
“Good morning,” the driver called out as I entered the cab. He started to chatter, but I didn’t respond, offering only the occasional onesyllable answer.
Finally he paused. “I’m sorry for talking on and on like this,” he said softly, “but you are the first sober fare I’ve had all night.”
I apologized. I told him I hadn’t had my coffee. I explained I was disappointed in the conference—I just wanted to be with my family.
He nodded. He said he understood. Apparently my accent gave me away, so he asked about Canada. When he found out my work centred around homicide issues, he seemed interested. So I asked him why D.C.,
where he lived, had the highest rate of murder in all of North America.
He fell silent. Then he said, “My brothers are still angry because of the years of slavery, the racism in this country and the poverty. This anger shows itself in violence.”
Even though he was identifying with his people, describing great sorrow and pain, he spoke without rage or bitterness.
I couldn’t resist. I asked him the burning question. “Why aren’t you angry?”
He said simply, “I believe in forgiveness.” My heart stopped. Without any further prompting, he explored this idea with an eloquence I hadn’t heard before or since. He talked about the beauty of being set free, of letting go of the past, embracing the moment and anticipating the future.
In his simple terms, he was able to accomplish what we’d failed to do in the previous two days. He not only described forgiveness, he radiated the word. By the time I reached the airport, I felt like a new person.
In that moment, I knew that forgiveness doesn’t need to be defined to be lived and felt.
HOW DOES THIS journey in forgiveness end?
I remember a day about two years ago when, after hearing me tell my story in a church, one woman looked at me with a measure of impatience. “Well, have you forgiven the murderer? Have you met with him?”
I hesitated. I have met with the man, figuratively. I have met with him almost daily since our daughter was taken. There seems to be a hidden issue in each day that reminds me of my loss and can take me right back to that initial pain.
But no, I have not met face to face with the man accused of Candace’s murder. Thirty-three years later, a second trial has wrapped up. Closing arguments have been made, and we are waiting on the judge to give her verdict, possibly sometime this fall. Until there is an end to this justice process, the law prevents us from
Imagine if I had waited for justice or resolution. I would have spent most of my life on the shelf.
having any interaction. Reconciliation, as such, is not possible.
For the past 33 years, we have had no justice or hope of resolution. Imagine if I had waited for it. I would have spent most of my life on the shelf.
So what is the conclusion? What does forgiveness look like for us?
We have to change our expectation. It’s not about resolution but about overcoming the impact.
Recently, at the end of a tiring but wonderful day, I looked across the bed at Cliff, grateful for the time spent with our children and their little ones.
“I am really happy,” I said to him. He looked at me. “I am too.” How did we get here? There was no logical rationale for our happiness.
Surprised, we said, “Let’s not tell anyone.” We felt guilty for being so happy. It was as if we were betraying Candace.
But then we caught ourselves again. Justice was happening. Candace was thriving. Even though our daughter had been murdered, she was still alive. Her memory and legacy were more powerful than any of ours.
Having scraped the bottom of life as we had, there is nothing more divine than to resurface into the sunshine and feel that warmth, that healing and that beauty. On top of the feeling of fullness, there is a sense of victory. We have seen the worst; fear was gone. We were so thankful for everything, even the experience of surviving a tragedy.
Gratitude brings more happiness, as happiness brings gratitude. It is a wonderful cycle—a vortex for good rather than the abyss.
Candace Derksen (right) shown with her father, Cliff, and her sister, Odia, in 1978.