He was a pastor, an artist, a father and a grandfather and to his wife Wilma, Cliff Derksen was the world.
But her world came to a halt when he died Sunday.
“It’s kind of like losing my heart in a way. It’s just horrible,” she told Global News Friday.
Cliff was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer in February after complaining about constipation. Just one day later the couple were told it was terminal.
“When this all happened, the first words that he got was, ‘I have three or four months to live,’” she said.
It was at that time they decided to turn to one of Wilma’s passions and start writing out his life story.
“Well, the first month that we were together, we kind of holed up…. We tunnelled,” she said through tears.
“And then we just wrote out his story. That was our big purpose.”
It’s a story that Wilma is now finishing alone in his honour. But the last few months they spent together, putting pen to paper, brought a gift she said she never expected.
“As he was telling me his stories, I realized that I was getting to know him again in a different way and getting to see life in a different way,” she said.
“Because every time you move into another decade, you see life differently. And it was fun. I will cherish that month and the second month.”
By the third month, Cliff’s health had taken a turn and now after his death, writing his story provides Wilma with another purpose.
“He’s given me in this a kind of reason to live to. I haven’t finished the book, so I’m kind of concentrating on that too…. But it is just like losing half of myself,” she said.
Part of Cliff’s story was written many years ago and is very public.
The Derksens’ 13-year-old daughter Candace disappeared on her way home from school in November 1984.
Seven weeks later her frozen body was found tied up inside a machine shed just 500 metres from their Winnipeg home.
For a short time after her death, Cliff was considered a suspect. Wilma said it just added to the hardships her husband had endured over the years.
“He’d had a tough life, even as a child. He ran away from home. He hid,” she said.
“Then that murder and being a suspect in the murder and all of that was really tough. His life wasn’t easy.”
It got even harder after a suspect was finally arrested and charged with their daughter’s death.
It took 22 years for police to name and arrest Mark Edward Grant. In 2011, he was found guilty of second-degree murder but that conviction was overturned two years later.
Grant was found not guilty during a retrial in 2017.
Throughout the court proceedings, Cliff turned to his art to help him cope with the trauma.
“It was his love and that’s what he would do when he was upset or needed to express himself. He would always go and sculpt or cartoon,” she said.
“Even in the courtroom, sometimes I would look over and he’d be cartooning and I’d know he’s going through something tough.”
His passion for art carried through the years and became an outlet for his emotions.
But he was also passionate about being an advocate for victims.
In 2018, Wilma and Cliff opened Candace House, a safe haven for victims and their families navigating their way through the criminal justice system.
Despite no one being held accountable for Candace’s death, Wilma says both she and Cliff learned to forgive.
“His sculptures are all a message of forgiveness,” she said.
“How do we get over this? Is this really worth it? All this energy that we’re putting into, how do we not give ourselves to defeat but give ourselves to victory? And so he was very much about that.”
Forgiveness is a small but powerful word that will form the basis of a future project of Wilma’s — and become part of Cliff’s legacy. Cliff dreamed of having a Forgiveness Centre.
“I know I need to steward his story. I know I need to fulfill his passion,” she said. “So if that is the next thing that comes along, I will try to create, to gather his image, gather his dream, and put it into fruition.”
But for now, as the family mourns the incredible loss of his life, she wants people to remember him for the amazing human being he was.
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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