LAWRENCE — Heather Sapienza died yesterday, six weeks after her husband was fired from his public works job for refusing to return from the unpaid leave he took to care for her at home. She was 40.
Her death ends a 19-month fight against cancer during which she adopted a chihuahua named Cooper, took a round-trip drive to the Grand Canyon with her husband, attended a Red Sox game and, with her family, created a Facebook group that allowed her to tell the story of her last year and a half. The group, called Kick’n A$$, has 646 members.
“She did everything she wanted to do,” her husband, Tom Sapienza, said yesterday. “Everything she did was to prove to people that life is livable, enjoyable, even though life is tough.”
One of the tough moments came the Monday after Thanksgiving, when a messenger delivered a pink slip signed by Mayor William Lantigua to the couple’s Young Avenue townhouse, ending Tom’s eight-year job driving plows and maintaining Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Tom Sapienza, 41, had been on unpaid leave since August, after running through two months of vacation and sick time. After extending the leave several times, Public Works Commissioner John Isensee said he advised Lantigua that he feared there would be “no end in sight” to the leaves and said he could not continue filling the job with temporary replacements.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 26, the same day Tom Sapienza was fired, former state Rep. Jose Santiago was given a temporary appointment to a DPW laborer’s job similar to the one Sapienza held. Sapienza earned $18 an hour; Santiago, who has no public works certifications, earns $15 an hour.
Santiago, an on-again-off-again political ally of Lantigua’s, had been unemployed. He tried to regain his statehouse seat in November, but won just 15 percent of the vote against incumbent Marcos Devers.
An Eagle-Tribune story reporting that Lantigua had fired Sapienza on the same day he hired Santiago produced a mix of generosity for the family and anger for the mayor. Friends and strangers dropped off a Christmas tree and a small pile of gifts, including a cashmere blanket that Heather shared with her three cats on the couch in their small living room. Two hospice nurses offered to volunteer time.
Former city Planning Director Mike Sweeney who was also once fired by Lantigua — established a fund for the family and organized a benefit to help the couple pay bills and keep their house.
Yesterday, Sweeney said the fund still will accept contributions but said he will postpone the benefit indefinitely to allow the family time to mourn. The benefit had been scheduled for Jan. 12 at the Relief’s In social club.
Since Tom Sapienza’s paid leave ran out in August, the Sapienzas have been living on Heather’s Social Security disability checks, which began arriving after her private disability insurance, provided by the Needham pharmaceutical company where she worked for 18 years, ran out.
Sweeney also blasted Lantigua for creating what he said were “circumstances that were more difficult than they needed to be” for the Sapienzas.
“Thirty-five days before (Heather’s) death, in the middle of the holidays, you have this heartless comic-book character firing her husband while he’s got two indicted police officers sitting at home doing nothing, who are making over $200,000 (combined), plus benefits,” Sweeney said, referring to Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla and P.J. Lopez, whom Lantigua put on paid leave after they were charged with crimes. “And he’s getting rid of an $18-an-hour DPW worker who was unpaid leave so that he could be home with his dying wife.”
Lantigua could not be reached yesterday.
Tom Sapienza said he will seek to regain his job and return to work full-time.
In the meantime, Heather Sapienza’s death yesterday drew scores of comments on the Facebook page she and her family had set up.
Her mother wrote first.
“Our beautiful girl now graces the heavens like no other before her and no other to come,” her mother, Sue Sexton, wrote along side a picture of herself hugging her daughter, who wore one of the bright pink wigs she was known for. “She passed this morning in Tom and my arms. She is at peace now.”
Arrangements were incomplete.
TO CONTRIBUTE: The Sapienza Family Fund, NESC Federal Credit Union, 244 Pleasant St., Methuen, Ma. 01844. The fund is approved by the family. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call Mike Sweeney at 978-397-3512.