“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.

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