July 8, 2020

Andrea Sappe Betza, my nursery-school sweetheart and one of the most extraordinarily unlikely people I’ve ever known, died on June 23. She was 39.

Her older sister sent me the news the following day, although due to an oversight on my part, I did not see it until earlier this month. Her death was not COVID-19-related. Andrea, or “Dre,” suffered from Still’s Disease, a rare autoimmune disorder that rendered her unable to work for most of the last decade. A resident of Las Vegas, she expressed concern about the city’s recent reopening of its large casino resorts during the ongoing pandemic given her condition.

During the 1980s Andrea and I both lived in or near New Hyde Park, New York, attended the same nursery school, and became good friends. In 1986, after returning from my uncle’s wedding in Seattle, we pretended to be married to each other. In 1987 my family moved about 15 miles away to Syosset and we fell out of touch. It wasn’t until 2006, when a coworker suggested that I look her up, that I discovered that she lived about 1 mile from me in Seattle. At the time she edited a blog called Lesbian News with her friend Gail, a college classmate of mine. We reunited after about 20 years apart on November 15, a day I still observe as “Reunification Day” on my calendar.

Andrea and I lived very different lives; if she didn’t have a web presence I would have had no chance of reunification. At the time she was mostly working night shifts in restaurant kitchens. Nevertheless, we struck up a great friendship, going to many events in Seattle and elsewhere. We went to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver together. For our 30th birthdays in February 2011, we visited Paris and Milan, and in nearby Genoa she met my distant Italian relatives who treated us to a fantastic lunch and a tour of the Italian Riviera. We spent the last days of December 2010 on Maui, her first trip to Hawaii, and she became so enamored of Lahaina that she moved there in March 2011, working in local restaurants until her illness halted her career.

In late 2017 she moved back to the mainland, living in Las Vegas, a more convenient place for Andrea to access health care without being able to drive a car. I have been fortunate enough to visit her several times at her new homes, most recently last November, where her disease had slowed her down but hadn’t broken her spirit. We could include serious talk about world events, appreciation of the most bizarre items of pop culture, and discussions of personal philosophy all in one afternoon.

I intend to mark the next Reunification Day with a grant to the International Foundation for Autoimmune & Autoinflammatory Arthritis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education, advocacy, and research concerning diseases including Still’s. Andrea was a person who could survive against just about any hardship. I miss her deeply and my condolences are with her family.