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Amid cancer treatment, Cassie Firenze crafted a lasting gift for her husband and son

Cassie Firenze of Belmont was admissions director at Shady Hill.
Cassie Firenze of Belmont was admissions director at Shady Hill.

A month before she died, Cassie Firenze wrote her last post for a blog on which she had documented her cancer experience for 18 months. In that final entry, she spoke about the ongoing home renovation that friends and family had pitched in on to help finish.

“Kitchen cabinets almost done, all tile delivered, lights on order, sink installed, appliances en route, colors chosen,” she ticked off. “Dreams can come true!”

She expressed gratitude to those who had supported a host of cancer fund-raising efforts she had spearheaded since her diagnosis.

“Thanks for pulling for us, as always,” she wrote. “Here’s hoping there’s a little less going on in your worlds, although I know we all get hit with roller coasters and need to buckle up.”

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A longtime admissions director of the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mrs. Firenze died Aug. 28 in Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln, one day before the home renovation was complete. She was 45 and lived in Belmont with her husband, Angelo, and their 9-year-old son, Nico.

The project was first envisioned in 2006, just after the couple married at King’s Chapel in Boston.

“We bought the smallest house on the nicest block in Belmont,” her husband said. “We knew it would need work. By the time we were ready, financially, Cassie had already been diagnosed. But we made a conscious decision to say, ‘Cancer be damned, we’re doing this.’ ”

They met with contractors and began work soon after Mrs. Firenze was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, in December 2017.

Following a year of treatments and surgery, remission and setbacks, the family learned the cancer had spread and her diagnosis was changed to Stage 4.

By then the home renovation was low on Angelo’s list of priorities, but when Mrs. Firenze’s friends learned the cancer diagnosis was probably terminal, they asked what she wished for most. She was clear: She wanted the house finished.

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“She said, ‘I want Angelo and Nico to feel secure in our new home,’ ” her husband recalled.

Within hours, friends started a GoFundMe campaign and raised tens of thousands of dollars that allowed them to speed up the project.

The fund-raising effort was remarkable, Angelo said, especially because Cassie had already encouraged friends and family to walk, run, ride in, and donate to support cancer-fighting efforts, including the Jimmy Fund and the Pan-Mass Challenge.

“Cassie always had the most amazing network of friends,” he said. “Nobody had more numerous, closer relationships with people than my wife. She was just unbelievable.”

One of those friends was Emily McClatchey, a child psychologist from Cambridge who specializes in death and dying, and who also had been diagnosed with cancer.

“Cassie was so funny and easy to talk to. She was irreverent and just put us at ease immediately,” McClatchey said of meeting Mrs. Firenze at Shady Hill when her children were applying for admission. “She had this uncanny ability to create and maintain communities.”

The two became close when they were diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time. They soon realized they also were both undergoing home renovations.

“We were living these parallel lives — raising kids, battling cancer, renovating our houses,” McClatchey said.

But from the beginning, it was clear Mrs. Firenze’s cancer was more aggressive.

“Cassie never once made me feel like, ‘It’s not the same, your prognosis is better,’ ” McClatchey said. “She was just like, ‘We’re going to support each other through this.’ ”

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McClatchey described her friend as “relentlessly optimistic, but also a realist. Usually when you see someone who’s that positive, they must be in denial.”

Mrs. Firenze, she added, prepared for death while maintaining hope for a miracle, and did so “with such grace and thoughtfulness and presence.”

Catharine Avis Wickes was born Feb. 11, 1974, in North Adams and grew up mainly in Arlington. She graduated in 1996 from Bucknell University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and education, before beginning a career in school administration.

She loved tennis, music, and gathering family and friends together, said her sister-in-law Libby Firenze.

“She was so quick-witted and had the most awesome laugh. It was always so much fun to be around her,” Libby said. “Cassie was the master of one-liners and zingers. When you were with her, you knew you’d just be cracking up.”

In her blog posts, Mrs. Firenze detailed highlights of her last year of life, including being in the audience during Paul Simon’s farewell tour, the musical “Hamilton,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

She was 7 and Angelo Firenze was 9 when they met at Sandy Island Family Camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where both vacationed with their families throughout their lives.

An enthusiastic participant in the Sandy Island community, she particularly loved reliving her childhood experiences there with her son, friends recalled.

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She cherished motherhood and Nico, who was conceived through fertility treatments. Mother and son frequently would climb aboard the Belmont train for adventures in and around Boston.

McClatchey, who works with children whose parents die of cancer, said that dying “can be a beautiful thing, especially in the case of someone like Cassie, who was exactly who she’d always been right to the end, even when everything was stripped away.”

“She gave such a gift to all of us who loved her, and especially to her son,” McClatchey added. “She’s created so many nests, such a great community for Nico.”

When Mrs. Firenze died, Angelo was ambivalent about the house she’d worked so hard to create.

“I almost had to force myself to picture Nico and I being there. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

So he asked Nico, who said: “I want to do it. Let’s go.”

They packed a few things from Angelo’s parents’ home in Winchester, where they had been staying. The night after she died, father and son slept in their Belmont home, in sleeping bags.

They are now settled in their house, which glows with poignant reminders of Cassie Firenze.

“It turned out gorgeous. It’s so full of all these decisions Cassie made,” said Angelo, who now thinks of the renovated house as a final gift from her to him and to Nico.

A funeral Mass has been said for Mrs. Firenze, who in addition to her husband, son, and sister-in-law leaves her mother, Jill Burrill of Acton; her father and stepmother, Paul and Gail Wickes of Richmond Hill, Ga., and Nairn, Scotland; and two stepsisters, Julia Vergopia and Amy Burrill, both of New York City.

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For her last birthday, when she turned 45 in February, Mrs. Firenze invited blog readers to celebrate at Flatbread Brighton to raise money for cancer research.

“No gifts, please,” she wrote, but she urged everyone to contribute to the efforts of three Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team members who ran the April race in honor of her and others with cancer.

In her final blog post, on July 27, she spoke about a new round of radiation and reported that “everything gets a little less scary when it starts.”

“I am now two sessions into radiation,” she wrote. “I think we will do 10, so not so bad. Every weekday, 30 minutes or so. Free parking.”

That upbeat touch captured Mrs. Firenze’s spirit, her sister-in-law recalled.

“Cassie was always positive, always looking for and finding the bright side,” Libby said. “Right up until the time she got sick, then right up until the time she died.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Mrs. Firenze’s alma mater and the circumstances of her son’s birth.


Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmckenna6666@gmail.com.