WINTHROP — Susan Cloutier recalls every detail of the final conversation with her husband and older son as they left to catch a bus for a hockey tournament.
“You look nice in that shirt,” she complimented her husband, Gus. Son Casey asked, “Mom, where’s my clothes? Where’s my tie?”
That was the morning of Dec. 30, 2014. The two died shortly afterward in a head-on collision on U.S. Route 202 in Leeds.
Gus Cloutier was 49; Casey, 14.
“Casey was born on his dad’s birthday, and they died on the same day,” she said, her eyes filling with tears as she talked about how she and her younger son, Chase, 12, have handled the tragedy over the past 12 months.
She said they could not have survived without the kindness and support of friends, neighbors and strangers from Maine and elsewhere.
“There’s just so many people out there who have done so much, and there is no way I’ve been able to thank them,” Susan Cloutier, 47, said.
She pointed to one recent instance when she had several cords of wood delivered to their home in Winthrop. It sat outside in a pile as she worked all day and ferried Chase to karate and hockey practice and went to a dental appointment.
When she returned home, she found that Ryan Chamberland and members of Chase’s karate team had showed up, taking it inside and stacking it.
Chase had told Chamberland, who is one of Chase’s karate instructors, that he wasn’t going to make it to class the next night because he had to work on the wood. Chamberland said he couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m just so fortunate to have the community around me,” Susan Cloutier said.
Since that fateful morning, people have dropped off meals at her home, plowed her driveway, mowed her lawn, raked leaves and done countless other things to try to ease the burden on the family.
“Somebody paid for my trash to be picked up for a year so I wouldn’t have to go to the dump,” she said.
A woman from Toronto whom Cloutier doesn’t know offered to make a blanket or quilt of Casey’s hockey jerseys, but Susan Cloutier can’t part with them.
Casey’s bedroom remains the same as he left it, except that his mother made the bed.
She is candid about her grief. “I’m still emotional. I’m on medication,” she said.
Her doctor wants her to start doing some things with adults, going out with her friends, things she’s been unable to do as yet.
She leans on her surviving son, Chase.
“He’s been my rock from the day the accident happened,” she said.
Chase once told her that he deals with the loss of his brother and his father by acting “like they’re on an extended hockey tournament.”
This year, even though Susan Cloutier said she did not want to celebrate Christmas and the family did not put up a Christmas tree, Chase made her a Christmas card, thanking her for everything she has given him and saying, “Yes, I do miss Dad and Casey.”
Chase focuses on his studies, achieving high honors at Winthrop Middle School; and his sports, instructing younger children in karate, serving on a leadership team and playing for a travel hockey team, the Maine Gladiators, where he plays defense.
“He’s keeping me busy,” she said. “He’s just so go, go, go.”
Casey said his favorite subject at school is mathematics.
“To me it’s fun to get a problem and it’s a little hard, but once you get through and complete it, it makes you feel good,” he said.
But his favorite activity is karate. He excels in the fighting discipline. This year he earned enough points to be named Maine and New England champion in his division. On Saturday, Chase was due to receive the New England award at a banquet in Boxborough, Massachusetts. He was to be accompanied by his mother and others from his KicksUSA team.
Chase also likes teaching karate to 4- and 5-year-olds at United Fitness and Martial Arts Studio in Winthrop.
“It’s fun working with the little kids,” he said.
Then there’s Casey’s dog, Oliver, a Berger Picard, who needs walks and care.
The memories overwhelm Susan Cloutier often.
“On their birthday, the whole thing happened again,” Cloutier said.
She’s careful to pronounce her surname as “Cluchay,” the way her late husband and his family did. Gus was born Ghislain, in Quebec, and moved to Jackman with his family when he was 13. The years of speaking English lessened his heavy French accent, Susan Cloutier said.
The two had been together for 28 years, with Gus, who drove a log truck and worked for Scott Paper and then New Page, playing a lot of hockey too. He regularly flooded an ice rink on their property — including the night before he died — and used his four-wheeler to clean off a rink on Upper Narrows Pond when the ice was thick enough.
“I love hockey now,” Susan Cloutier said. And Casey’s Montreal Canadiens hat — he was a big fan — made it to a Bruins-Canadiens game this year in Boston atop Chase’s head.
“Chase and I were the only ones in the section rooting for Montreal,” she said.
This summer, she and Chase went to a wedding in Quebec when one of Gus’ cousins married. Cloutier carries a photo from that, showing both her and Chase smiling, one of the few times that’s happened in more than a year.
Susan Cloutier returned in June to her job with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Office of Information Technology, becoming full time again when Chase started school this year.
A Cony High School graduate, she has worked for the state since 1987.
“They were really good to me,” she said, noting that her employer gave her six months’ bereavement leave.
Ironically, she said, the other vehicle in the accident was driven by a state employee, and she has a claim against the state over it.
An officer with the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation into the crash is complete and in the hands of the Androscoggin County district attorney’s office.
District Attorney Andrew Robinson said Friday the case remains pending, and he intends to meet with the family before releasing any final decision about whether to file charges against Ralph D. Ryder, 60, of Livermore, who was driving east in the sport utility vehicle that deputies say crossed the centerline and collided with the westbound Cloutier vehicle.
In fact, in December 2015, Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, had sought to introduce a bill, “An Act To Compensate Susan Cloutier for Damages in Connection with Her Vehicle Liability Claim against a State Employee at the Department of Labor.” However, that effort failed.
Cloutier is especially touched by the efforts of the St. Dominic Academy community — Casey had been a freshman at the private high school in Auburn for four months — to comfort her and her family and to memorialize her son. The school sent her a plant this year on the anniversary of his death. Susan Cloutier said she wants Chase to go there as well.
“They were just so giving,” she said.
Bishop Robert Deeley, of the Diocese of Portland, celebrated the Mass at the Cloutiers’ funeral.
The school had a memory wall for Casey, and last year’s yearbook was dedicated to him and features photos of him in his school’s black-and-white hockey uniform. Photos show a handsome teen with short blond hair and a serious expression.
“Casey would have been a sophomore and on their hockey team,” she said. “It’s on my list to go and watch them play hockey.”
She and Chase are now becoming Catholics themselves, going through faith formation process, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and are expected to be welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil service in March.
“That’s really something that helps carry me through,” she said.
Betty Adams — 621-5631