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Mystic couple parted by COVID-19, which took one, left the other behind

Robert Beard still lives among the butterflies — a reminder of his late wife, Bettye.

“She had a real love for butterflies. There are butterflies in every room of this house. Gold, silver, Monarch,” the 79-year-old Beard said during a phone interview this week from his Mystic home.

Bettye had loved butterflies since she was a little girl, and the only room in the couple’s home where they’re absent is the attic. And that’s because no one goes up there, Beard quipped.

“Whenever anyone asked her why butterflies, she would say, 'because they’re free,'” he said.

Both Bettye and Robert contracted COVID-19 in May. Neither knew they had the disease until Bettye went to the hospital with chest pains. The hospital tested her for COVID-19 and the results came back positive. Robert subsequently tested positive.

After doctors at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital found fluid around Bettye’s heart, she was transported to Yale to have it removed “and while she was there, COVID-19 took her away,” Beard said. She was 81.

Now, Beard said he is "living among the butterflies,” and while in some ways that’s been comforting because it “feels that she’s still here,” the guilt of surviving COVID-19 while his wife died has stuck with him. He’s lost nearly 90 pounds since her May 17 death. “I’m a big man. I look like a walking skeleton. I haven’t allowed my children to come around much because I’m not myself,” he said.

In Connecticut, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 4,500 people since the pandemic began in mid-March. While the state has driven down its infection rate and largely contained the disease, a recent uptick in cases, including an outbreak at a nursing home in Norwich shut down by the state this week, and in hospitalizations, which earlier this week was the highest it's been since July, shows the virus hasn’t gone anywhere. The pandemic continues to disproportionately impact people of color.

“It is very insidious and it’s causing a lot of heartache for a lot of people,” Beard said. "It’ll be so good to get rid it, and eventually we will.”

Robert and Bettye were set up by a mutual friend after both of their respective spouses died. One day, the friend approached Robert in the grocery store and asked if he was dating anyone. She had a friend she wanted him to meet, a church-going lady — Bettye was a longtime member of Shiloh Baptist Church in New London — who she thought he would get along with. She wrote down Bettye’s number on the back of an envelope and gave it to him.

Then one day Beard’s phone rang. It was Bettye. “She called me and said, 'Were you going to call me?' I said, 'Yep, but I lost the number,’” Beard recalled.

The two agreed to meet. Beard brought flowers and they talked about “everything under the sun” while he sipped soda and she sipped coffee.

They had another date. Then another. Then another.

"We hit it off,” he said. “As it turns out, we were together 27 years and married 19."

Bettye had four kids from her previous marriage, two of whom predeceased her. Between her and Robert, the couple has 24 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. They had a blended family whom they loved spending time with.

"She treasured her family so much. She had a special personal relationship with all of us," her eldest daughter, Kathy Rizberg, said in a text message.

Her family described her as a woman of her word who taught her children to be the same way. She loved playing games, especially with her grandkids, and with her friends — “the ladies,” as her children called them — whom she would invite over her home on a weekly basis for game nights.

Bettye frequently talked about how she had a good life and “whatever happens, happens,” and that was true in her final days, her daughter Marie Sebastian said during a phone interview from Georgia, where she lives.

“There was nothing left unsaid. Nothing left undone. She was very happy with her life,” Sebastian said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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