Campus & Community

My grandpa’s 100 hats

He drove us to games and recitals and taught us to stand up for our beliefs

5 min read
Shannon Freyer with siblings and her grandpa.

Shannon Freyer (left) with her grandfather and her siblings Colleen (center) and Chris. Freyer’s grandfather died on his 86th birthday from COVID-19.

Photos courtesy of Shannon Freyer

Portraits of Loss

Shannon Freyer

A collection of stories and essays that illustrate the indelible mark left on our community by a pandemic that touched all our lives.

I think there’s a common perception that older people who die of COVID-19 were previously really sick, or at least sickly. But my grandpa was pretty healthy and still super independent, driving himself around and going to the gym.

Last summer, he was in the hospital for blood-pressure issues, and he initially tested negative for the coronavirus. Then, right before he was supposed to be released, he tested positive — he had contracted the virus while he was at the hospital.

And then a couple of weeks later, on his 86th birthday, he passed away.

During that time, my family and I just had to wait and wonder what would happen. It was really hard, to just not know. And the hospital visiting rules made it hard — I only talked to him on the phone. My dad and uncle were able to see him in person, and it was really good that someone could be with him every day. We were lucky in that sense — a lot of people don’t even have that.

Baseball hats owned by her grandfather.
“He wore a lot of hats and owned at least 100 of them, so we laid them all out and asked everyone which specific ones they wanted, to remember him by,” says Shannon Freyer.

After my grandpa passed away, I was able to travel and be with my family in New York. Not everyone could be there, but it was really nice to see those who could. We talked about our memories of him and all the things he taught us and were able to honor him in that way.

My grandpa lived in the Bronx. My family is from around there too, so he helped raise me and my siblings when we were growing up. We lived so close to each other, it was easy to spend a lot of time together. He would drive us to sports games and recitals, always making sure that someone would be there to watch.

He was a banker, so he was really good with finances. He helped me and each of my siblings buy our first cars, taking us to the dealership and teaching us all the financial aspects, like how to check that we were getting a good deal. He made sure we were in a good position.

Whenever he would ask me what I was up to, with school or work, it didn’t really matter what I was doing — it just mattered that I enjoyed doing it. I work in animal care, which isn’t the most lucrative profession compared to banking. But he knew that I can make ends meet, and I enjoy working with animals, and he was proud that I was following a path that I wanted.

Shannon Freyer and her grandpa.
Shannon Freyer and her grandparents.

Shannon Freyer with her grandfather. Freyer with her grandparents, siblings, and cousins.

My grandpa taught us to stand up for what we believe in, and to just say what we’re thinking, especially with telling people how we feel about them. Because he loved us so much, and he always made sure we knew that.

Talking with my family and remembering him helps, and hearing stories from my dad that I hadn’t before. My grandpa’s still with us, in that sense. He wore a lot of hats and owned at least 100 of them, so we laid them all out and asked everyone which specific ones they wanted, to remember him by. I have his hat from Northeastern University, which is where I went to college.

But my family has also been very aware of what we haven’t been able to do, like hold a normal funeral. Over the summer, we had thought we could bring everyone together in the new year, but then cases got bad again during the winter. So it’s unknown when we’ll be able to do it.

All of this has impacted how I think about the pandemic, and how seriously or not people are taking it. People talk about the coronavirus every single day, so I can’t really take my mind off it — there’s a constant reminder. And it’s disappointing how the U.S. has dealt with the pandemic, because I feel like he didn’t have to die.

I miss hearing his voice the most. He was a really big support system, and we could always count on him. I feel really lucky to have had such a close relationship with him.

— As told to Jessica Lau

Shannon Freyer is an animal-care technician in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. As part of Leonard Zon’s laboratory, she helps maintain the group’s zebrafish facility and contributes to research on zebrafish metabolism. Here, she commemorates her grandfather Hugh Freyer, whom she lost to COVID-19 in July 2020.