Heron Freed Toor was one of those friends. I came to have a deep fondness and appreciation for Heron as I think everyone in the Northern California wedding industry did once they had the pleasure of meeting her.
Heron was, to me, the epitome of a free spirit because she truly followed her heart. Up until her recent illness she played singles tennis, took hour long walks several times each week, would run on occasion, lifted weights and she would walk the 3.5 miles to the farmers' market each weekend then take two buses to get home with her bags of groceries that she would carry up three flights of stairs at her walk-up apartment. This meant she could literally run circles around almost everyone half her age.
She was a very pretty lady always so stylish, with a cute hair do and wearing fashionable outfits with heels often so high I marveled at her ability to stand, let alone walk, in them.
We often attended many of the same wedding industry events and when she would spot me in a crowd she was always ready with a smile and a hug. Add to that in all the years I knew her I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone or be anything but optimistic even during the most challenging of times.
Earlier this year she began experiencing back pain so she went to her doctor and was shockingly diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
How did she let her friends know? She sent some of us an email saying that upon hearing the diagnosis she immediately went to the Sugar Bowl Bakery for a tin of 48 brownies bites, picked up her favorite pint of Ben and Jerry's "Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream" ice cream and treated herself to a hair cut, lash tint and mani-pedi. She'd also been shopping for a beautiful bed jacket so that she could "step out of this world in style." Only then did she break the news to us that she was planning to eat as much as she wanted of all of the no-no foods she used to eat in moderation, for as long as she was able to enjoy them. Knowing it would be hard to hear she would be leaving us, she gave us this positive mental image to hold onto so that we couldn't help but smile through our tears.
Shortly after, my friend Jewel had a great idea and she and I took Heron to lunch to the restaurant of her choice. We had a fine meal down in the marina at Greens, a vegetarian restaurant with a waterfront view. She savored her glass of wine, ate a little pasta and throughly enjoyed dessert. We spent the time laughing, chatting and reminiscing about her life and how she was feeling about the time she had left.
True to form not only had she created a short bucket list of things she still wanted to do, she'd also created a list of the things she was happy she would never have to do again like pay taxes and go to the dentist.
She asked me what had I been baking and what would I make next? I told her I'd be making a flourless chocolate cake for the Food Blogger Bake Sale and her face lit up. Heron loved chocolate and sweets. She mentioned that she might have to make her favorite gingerbread cake one last time. I offered to bake her cake for her if she didn't have the time or energy to do so herself. She just laughed.
When I saw Heron a week later at the "Celebration of Life" party some of her best friends hosted in her honor I brought a freshly baked, flourless, chocolate cake she could take home to enjoy which put a bright and beautiful smile on her face.
For the next three months I truly baked with love, dropping cakes and cookies by Heron's apartment each time I was up in the city for her and her caregivers to enjoy.
Heron's Gingerbread Cake Recipe
My first visit to her home she was out on a walk so I left a tin of crisp & chewy chocolate cookies at her door. Her friend Susan had left me Heron's gingerbread cake recipe taped to the doorway and I promised to drop it by on my next trip to the city.
I did make the gingerbread cake but as perfect as it looked while cooling it turned into a bundt-tastrophe when I flipped it. Luckily I'd made cupcakes with the extra batter so I delivered them to her door and stayed for a short visit. When she saw me she said she knew I was always busy and asked how did I find the time to bake for her and come visit her? The only thing I could think to say in reply was "people first, especially friends." And I meant it.
My next visit was brief, and lasted just moments. Heron had had a bad morning but her caretaker said she wanted to say a quick hello when I dropped off another tin of cookies.
Last week Carl and I drove up for what would be the last time I would see Heron. I took some chocolate marquise on the off chance she could let the tiny bites of ice cream melt in her mouth. But she was heavily sedated due to the amount of pain she had been in for the past few days. We spent some time with her just sitting beside her bed, talking to her a bit and wondering if she could hear us. We said our last goodbyes and left as a young couple she'd married came to spend time with her.
Heron at her party in March 2011 from a video by her son DavidPretty Lady, you will be dearly missed. Your warmth, smile and kindness lit up the room each and every time I saw you over the years.
Since I've known you you've been a role model of how I always want to be: Vital, energetic, healthful, eco-conscious, loving, compassionate, a spiritual seeker and especially in the face of life's adversities you were admirably courageous in all arenas.
Suffering from depression was something we had in common. But you, you fought a longer harder battle with it than I and reinvented yourself along the way becoming the name you chose for yourself, Heron. And as you would say sometimes (just like the bird) you would get stuck in the mire and the muck (that were life's challenges) but when you flew, you soared.
Whatever comes after I feel in my heart you are soaring now free of the pain the cancer forced you to endure and you have left behind the depression that challenged you through so much of your life. You remain a bright and lovely light in my heart and memories.
Just a few months ago you had your own eloquent message you shared with us at your Celebration of LIfe party. . .
"So, I just wanted to say a couple words about my dying, and that is that
I am at peace. I feel my life is complete. I had an interesting, exciting, horrible, wonderful, you name it (kind of) life. And I truly feel it's finished. And it's such a good feeling for me because it gives me a lot of peace. I don't have any regrets. I don't have anything that I really really want to do other than being with friends and family."
- Heron Freed Toor