ELKHART — What started out with a single tree has blossomed into a garden of cherished memories.
Sonja Cassady was diagnosed with cancer almost 20 years ago, and after several months of chemotherapy and rounds of radiation, she found solace in her garden.
“It’s really grown since then,” said Cassady, a retired Elkhart Central High School teacher.
Cassady and her mother started the garden together by planting a flowering cherry tree in her backyard and later adding vibrantly colored flowers and other leafy plants. A path winds around the yard, making it easier for Cassady to navigate the garden in her wheelchair.
“When I’m out there, I think of my parents, especially mother because we started the garden together, and it lives forever,” said Cassady, whose mother died in 2006. “There is always something growing and flourishing.”
Placed thoughtfully among the flowers are memorial rocks engraved with the names of beloved pets that have died. Her dogs — Crocket, Gellert and Ruby — are often by her side as she plucks weeds and waters the plants.
Since 2001, Cassady has enlisted the help of four local siblings — Nick, Amanda and Katie Falcone and Taylor Freedline — who have done everything from shoveling snow to planting flowers in her backyard. Cassady got to know them after Freedline’s father built a deck and wheelchair ramp in front of her home.
“These kids, they do absolutely what’s asked of them,” Cassady said. “When I started the garden, I wasn’t in a wheelchair, but without them, I wouldn’t have a lot of what I have.”
Katie Falcone began helping Cassady when she was a freshman at Elkhart Memorial High School by grocery shopping, driving her to medical appointments and taking her dogs to the vet among other errands. But one of her favorite parts about visiting Cassady was the garden.
“Every time I would come over, she always had more flowers and plants, so that was always exciting,” Katie Falcone said. “She’s a very independent woman, and she taught me a lot about that.”
Even though Amanda Falcone has moved to St. Kitts in the West Indies for veterinary school, she still keeps in touch with Cassady via handwritten letters.
“My family doesn’t really have a green thumb at all, so I’ve really learned a lot from her and not just about gardening,” Amanda Falcone said. “I learned a lot from her about patience and caring.”