Tears + Art + Healing + Birthdays + Murder = Messy, Painful, Beautiful Life
I was standing at my kitchen sink yesterday afternoon when the tears started flowing down my face.
I wasn’t crying because of the drudgery of having to clean the house again, and again, and again. I was crying for the sheer privilege of being able to clean the house for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday.
Wilma Derksen didn’t get to clean the house for her daughter Candace’s sixteenth birthday. When Candace was just thirteen years old, she disappeared on her way home from school. Six weeks later, her body was found, tied up and frozen in a shed not far from the Derksen’s home.
Just last year, twenty-seven years after Candace’s death, her murderer was finally found and convicted.
Yesterday, before cleaning the house, I visited an art show made up mostly of art created by Cliff Derksen and Odia Reimer, father and sister of Candace, during and after the murderer’s trial. Every piece bore marks of pain, anger, guilt, anguish, and love.
The first piece I saw was a set of simple pencil drawings Cliff drew during the trial. There were sketches of the judge, the security guard, the jury, and various other players in the narrative that was their life for those twenty-three days. Mixed into the human characters were images of the guardian angel that protected them throughout, and the demons who were never far from their minds.
The piece that first made me cry was a set of simple black and white photos Odia took of the steps her sister would have taken on her way home from school. Just a simple, ordinary street, with simple, ordinary stories happening all around, and yet those everyday images took on a whole new layer of meaning because they represented her sister’s last view of the earth. Under the images were snippets of text representing the moments and thoughts the family experienced in the days after Candace’s disappearance – the way they’d been treated by police who interpreted their deep faith as religious fanaticism, the day that five plates were set at the table and one had to be put back in the cupboard, the guilt Wilma felt over not picking her daughter up from school that day.
Below the images stood a sculpture that represented Cliff’s anguish. It was titled “Suspicion” and was ostensibly about his youth, growing up on a farm… “how impossible expectation resulting in judgement, created an environment loaded with suspicion and distrust on all sides.” He felt trapped like the first post of a barbed wire fence – something I could immediately recognize, having grown up on a farm with similar expectations. At the bottom of the text, though, was something I had no way of relating to. “Is this symbolic of my 22 years under suspicion?” Imagine… 22 years he lived with the knowledge that some in the police force suspected him of murdering his own daughter.
My own memory flashed back to the day when I’d returned home to the farm after suffering at the hands of a rapist. My father, overcome with emotion and the pain of knowing he’d been unable to protect his own daughter, left the house for a few moments. When he returned, with great pain in his voice, he told the story of a man he’d once known who’d spent five years of his life hunting for the man who’d raped his daughter, with the intent of killing him. “Suddenly,” my pacifist father said, “I know exactly how he felt.” My father was not under suspicion, but like Candace’s father, he probably felt trapped, knowing he could do nothing to change what had happened.
The next piece that caught my attention was one that I’d seen before – 490 crocheted teardrops created by Odia. 70×7 – the number of times the Bible instructs us to forgive those who’ve wronged us. With each teardrop crocheted, I imagine Odia trying to find a drop of forgiveness in her heart for the man who’d taken her sister from her. I’m sure the tears she shed as she crocheted them were more full of rage than they were of forgiveness.
Upstairs in the gallery, two last pieces provided the final frame for the story that the other pieces began. One was a line of six black and white images of feet drawn by Cliff, called Sacred Ground. Each set of feet represented a different member of his immediate family as they sat in the trial waiting to hear the verdict. Most of the feet were barefoot. During the trial, they’d often removed their shoes to remind themselves that, like Moses at the burning bush, they were on Sacred Ground. God was with them in the courtroom and had been with Candace as she lay dying in the shed. What great faith that simple act of removing their shoes must have required!
The final piece moved me even more than the rest, and makes me determined to go back to the gallery so that I can sit quietly in its presence for a little while longer. It’s a set of 23 crocheted circles in red, black, and cream. Each day that Odia sat in the court room, she crocheted a circle. The colours represent the state of her emotions while she sat and listened to the proceedings – cream for neutral, red for pain, black for rage. Some days were mostly cream, other days were a complex mix of all three, and other days were pure black. One day that intrigued me was almost purely cream, with a tiny shock of black. Not unlike my own mandala practice, she brought the complexity of the experience into a simple circle.
With me at the gallery was my friend Gabby with her two small girls – beautiful, vibrant children who made the viewing of the art even more complex and meaningful. While I processed the sadness, little Sadie was busy pulling treasures out of her bag to show me. One was a large plastic sparkly diamond. Surrounded by stories of death, this little girl reminded me of the joy of life. Our stories are messy and complex and the beauty doesn’t stop even when the sadness overwhelms us.
As I stood at my kitchen sink processing the fullness of what I’d seen, I cried for Wilma and Cliff and Odia and the rest of their family. I cried for the day that Candace would have turned sixteen and their basement wasn’t full of the laughter that would soon ring through mine. I cried for the gift that my three daughters continue to bring to my life. I also cried for the sixteenth birthday I will never be able to host for my son Matthew.
Several years ago, I heard Wilma Derksen interviewed on the radio, and she shared a story about the one year anniversary of Candace’s death. She’d been holding her emotions together, when suddenly she’d noticed fingerprints high up on the wall on the way down the stairs. She knew those could only have been Candace’s fingerprints, left there on the many times she’d bounded down the stairs and jumped up to slap the wall above her on her way down.
As I wiped the fingerprints my own children had left around the house yesterday, I thanked God that there will still be fresh fingerprints to wipe off tomorrow, and the day after that, and… I pray… the day after that. I also thanked God for the fingerprints Matthew left on my heart, though he will never leave any on my walls.
A few weeks ago, I heard Wilma Derksen speak at TEDx Manitoba. She said that one of her greatest learnings during the trial was that you can’t hold two things equally in your heart. Though she tried to hold both love and justice during the trial, she knew that there was not enough space for both. And so, for the sake of her family that remained with her, she chose love.
Yesterday, as I prepared to celebrate my daughter, I too chose love. It’s the same choice my dad made after the rapist harmed me. And the same choice I made eleven years ago after human error resulted in the death of my son.
Again and again, I choose love.