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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Love, death and family: A tale of three Novembers

    Rebecca Clifford plays with her adopted son Daniel, 18 months, on the slide outside their home in Bozrah on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Rebecca Clifford and her late husband Gus. (Submitted Photo/Rebecca Clifford)
    Gus Clifford and his then foster son Daniel. (Submitted Photo/Rebecca Clifford)
    Gus Clifford and his then foster son Daniel. (Submitted Photo/Rebecca Clifford)
    Rebecca Clifford helps her adopted son Daniel, 18 months, climb up the slide at their home in Bozrah on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Rebecca Clifford laughs as she picks up her her adopted son Daniel, 18 months, off the slide at their home in Bozrah on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Bozrah ― Just before 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving day last year, Rebecca Clifford woke up to silence and knew she was suddenly a widow.

    The couple’s Boston terrier, Rocco, had for weeks faithfully lain on the hospital bed that had been moved into the couple’s Bozrah home to make Augustus “Gus” Clifford’s last days as peaceful as possible as brain cancer ravaged his body and mind.

    “But that morning, Rocco came into the bedroom I’d been sleeping in ― my brother-in-law and I took shifts watching over Gus ― and I knew something had happened,” Rebecca said earlier this month during an interview at her Salem Turnpike home. “I would always hear Gus’ breathing, but that morning the house was quiet, and I knew.”

    Gus Clifford, her funny, mischievous husband of nearly seven years, a virtuoso behind a snowplow wheel and a man so personable he charmed the funeral director helping make arrangements for his own death, died two days before his 57th birthday.

    Suddenly, Rebecca Clifford was a single mother, raising the 18-month-old foster child, Daniel, the couple had long hoped to adopt.

    “This wasn’t my plan,” said Clifford, 46, a veterinary receptionist at the All Friends Animal Hospital in Norwich. “I didn’t want to be a single mother. But I love God and Jesus and I prayed and prayed and prayed.”

    Inside a Waterford family courtroom on Nov. 6, less than a year after her husband’s death, Rebecca Clifford formally adopted Daniel, now a 2 ½-year-old boy who loves “Paw Patrol” episodes, scampering up his backyard playscape and exploring the limits of his independence.

    “He’s all boy,” Rebecca Clifford said. “He’s happy, stubborn and clingy and loves everything his daddy did.”

    A relationship marked by holidays

    Rebecca Clifford wasn’t looking for love when her friends at Revelation Church in Bozrah encouraged her to meet Gus during Thanksgiving week in 2015.

    “I was recently divorced and wasn’t interested in a new relationship,” she said. “He asked for my phone number, and I said ‘no.’ But I conceded and said he could meet me and my parents for coffee. We were married five weeks later.”

    Rebecca’s mother, Melissa Colter, said her future son-in-law walked in for that first meeting and proceeded to charm her and her husband, Chad Colter.

    “He was a great big man, 6-foot, 5-inches tall, and the nicest person,” she said.

    “He was a conspiracy theorist ― in a good way ― like my wife, so she had someone to talk with,” Chad Colter said. “He’d come over and plow the private road we live on and mow our lawn. Just a good guy.”

    Gus Clifford, a Tolland County transplant, parlayed his love for the outdoors into a career, taking in landscaping jobs during the warm months and hitting the roads behind a plow when the snow fell.

    “He made an art of snowplowing, going out for 14 to 16 hours at a time, plowing our church’s lot for free,” Rebecca Clifford said. “He was so funny and kind. He’d go out and start my car in the cold mornings, open doors for me and be waiting outside when I got home from work.”

    But the day after Christmas in 2021, the couple’s world shattered.

    “He collapsed, and we thought he’d had a stroke and called the ambulance,” Rebecca Clifford said. “But it turned out to be a seizure.”

    Gus Clifford was quickly moved to Hartford Hospital, where a brain tumor was found.

    “At first there was hope that chemo and radiation would help, but eight months later the cancer had progressed,” Rebecca Clifford said.

    He was later diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer largely resistant to traditional cancer therapies. Most patients die within 16 months of a diagnosis.

    Rebecca Clifford, with the help of her relatives and church family, set up a home hospice in the couple’s living room where Gus Clifford, who loved dogs, tractors, trains and his family, later died in his sleep.

    Weeks before, Gus Clifford, whose need to plan ran bone-deep, met with a funeral director to get his affairs in order. True to form, the big man, now diminished, once again dipped into those reservoirs of charisma that so beguiled his wife’s parents years before.

    “When the undertaker left, he told us how much he liked Gus,” Rebecca Clifford said. “He said he thought they could have been friends. Gus fought for 10 months.”

    A mother and son move ahead

    Her husband’s death not only left Rebecca Clifford a widow, but also the primary caregiver to young Daniel, the latest child the couple had taken in over the years as adoptive foster parents.

    The pair began fostering in 2019 and during that span opened their home to 12 kids for various lengths of time. In most cases, the children were later reunited with their biological parents or placed with relatives.

    “We wanted to adopt every child that came to us, but it didn’t work out until Daniel,” Rebecca Clifford said.

    Daniel and his half-sister moved in with the Cliffords in September 2021. Daniel’s sibling was later taken in by a Kansas relative, but Rebecca Clifford was able to convince a judge to allow her to continue caring for Daniel until the adoption process was complete.

    “Gus was adopted, and I couldn’t have children,” Rebecca Clifford said. “But I wanted to be a mom.”

    On the day the adoption was finalized, the family court was filled with state Department of Children and Families workers, Rebecca’s Clifford’s family and members of her congregation.

    “It didn’t take long, but it was emotional,” she said. “But I was thinking as it was happening that Gus should be here with us, that I shouldn’t be doing this without him.”

    Rebecca Clifford, who spent Thanksgiving at her parent’s home this year, recalled wondering during those especially dark days, as her husband’s health declined, whether going through with Daniel’s adoption was the right choice.

    “But when Gus passed, I knew I’d fight for Daniel the hardest I could,” she said. “Other single mothers have done it and so could I. I have a great church family and a wonderful ‘family’ family.”

    And there’ll be no shortage of memories to share with Daniel as time passes and the pain recedes.

    “I want him to know how fun his dad was, how outgoing he was and try to teach him ― with the help of the men at church ― as much as I can,” she said. Even now he’s learning to open doors for the ladies like Gus did. He’s my beautiful blessing.“

    j.penney@theday.com

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