For a moment, he couldn't remember his nephew's name. Ryan Flanagan paused and sighed, overcome by the lapse.
"I guess it's a sign of how little I interact with my brother right now," he said quietly.
Rhodes Flanagan was born last September to Ryan's brother Brennan and his wife Haylee, who have been vigilant about COVID safety. The now 6-month old arrived in the grip of a pandemic, to a world defined by limits. Rhodes hasn't gazed upon his grandmother's face without her mask, hasn't felt her lips on his cheeks or seen how widely she grins in his presence. Brennan's three siblings all live within 15 miles of each other around Kansas City, but his twin sister Caitlyn and brother Ryan have only seen Rhodes a couple of times. His brother Kean hasn't met the baby, because he refuses to wear a mask.
Rhodes was born into a family divided. For the Flanagans, some fractures formed well before COVID, but when the health crisis took hold of the country it pitted conservative family members against more liberal ones, the individualistic against the collective-minded, the risk-averse against the risk-tolerant. The Flanagans span the spectrum of COVID behavior.
Siblings fighting. Spouses at odds: How to fix relationships damaged by COVID
Brennan, 24 and a teacher, is rigorous about wearing masks, staying 6-feet apart from others when possible and tries to avoid socializing indoors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these behaviors are necessary to slow the spread of COVID.
His twin Caitlyn, a certified nurse assistant, supports how cautious Brennan has remained, particularly around his son. Ryan, 37, who works for an electronic health records company, has modified some behaviors, but isn't as stringent as Brennan, often travels for his job, and finds some of Brennan's boundaries excessive. Kean, 35, who works in renewable energy, said he lives as freely as he did before the pandemic began, aside from following mask mandates he can't avoid. He thinks Brennan is being "silly as hell."
"COVID disrupted my family and it made our political differences – something we (previously) put away during Thanksgiving – into something that controlled how we lived," Brennan said. "Some people in our families had this mentality of, 'You guys are worrying too much. We're fine. We've been fine. Stop overreacting. We're not going to meet your expectations just because you guys are worried.' ... Our baby has met everyone in the family who is willing to wear a mask while holding him."
As the pandemic wears on, so does the family's tension. Before COVID, Brennan and his siblings, mother and stepdad would get together regularly. Since the pandemic, Brennan's family has continued to gather, albeit less frequently, and usually without him.
"I truly love my family," Brennan said. "But I also want to be safe."
'It's been a challenge for me as a mom'
Brennan and Caitlyn are more than a decade younger than their older brothers. Their mother, Shari Flanagan, said she was a different parent to her younger two – softer, more empathetic, more experienced.
"I was a much different mom with my two older boys," she said. "I raised them in probably a way where it was more authoritarian. It was like, 'You're going to just play by my rules.' And, 'It's because I say so.' And that's not really respect."
Respect, she said, is essential for her children to repair what's been broken. Shari works in senior living, and said she's followed health protocols to keep herself, her facility and her family safe. But even she has moments where she finds Brennan's boundaries difficult, and wonders how necessary they are.
"I haven't been able to kiss [my grandson] since he was born," she said. "That's sad for me as a grandparent. But through this process with COVID, I've been challenged to connect and have relationships that don't include hugging and kissing and physical touch."
Health experts say clinical outcomes for babies who contract COVID-19 are very reassuring, but the virus's unknowns remain distressing for parents.
Brennan is the family's outlier, everyone agrees, during the pandemic and well before. While the kids all identified as Republican growing up, when Brennan went to Kansas State University his political views shifted. He met and fell in love with Haylee.
His siblings also mark that time as a cleaving. Brennan's years away created a rift.
"Kean, the second-oldest, he's definitely a Trump supporter. And I would say Brennan is definitely a Biden supporter, so opposite ends of the spectrum," Shari said. "I think the masks are just kind of a symbol of all of that. ... It's been a challenge for me as a mom to basically give a space for all of those beliefs for all of my kids."
'I considered him one of my best friends'
Brennan and Ryan describe their bond in similar terms.
"He's so much like me," Brennan said.
"I love his personality, probably because it's so similar to mine," Ryan said laughing. "He's social and outgoing, and he wants to be inclusive."
But neither Ryan nor Brennan can remember the last time they saw one another. They think it was in the fall. Before COVID, they hung out every few weeks, watching movies, playing board games, talking over a beer. When Rhodes was born, Ryan and his wife wore masks to meet the baby.
"I respected it. It was awkward even though at the time it felt necessary," he said.
Ryan, who has a 13-year-old daughter, tightened his social circle during the pandemic, but didn't stop gathering altogether. He said there were some social events he refused, though he attended a friend's outdoor wedding. He respects Brennan's boundaries around mask-wearing but views the sustained state of vigilance as untenable.
"He wants to do almost contact tracing in order for us to have a family event," he said.
Brennan said it's true. If people go someplace public and socialize without masks, he asks that they wait two weeks before holding Rhodes.
"I considered him one of my best friends," Brennan said of his brother. "Now it almost feels like we are acquaintances."
'I'm going to go stand outside in the yard to see his kid?'
Brennan and Ryan were friends. Kean, Brennan said, was like a father.
Shari and her husband divorced when Brennan was in middle school, and his father moved out of state. Kean was the brother who would show Brennan how to repair his car, who took him to the driving range to work on his golf swing and talk about life.
"He was somebody I looked up to," he said. "I haven't seen him in so long. Sometimes I wonder, because of my beliefs, 'does he even love me?'"
Kean said COVID isn't the culprit. He and Brennan's relationship has been challenged for years. Kean is a former Marine who served in Afghanistan, Brennan was away for years at college. When Brennan finally came home, there was time and space between them.
"He's got some asinine rules about what you have to do," Kean said. "I mean, you can't go to bars. You can't go to sporting events. My kid plays volleyball. You can't go here. You can't go there and you have to wait two weeks and this, that, and the other. And then one time he wanted me to come see his kid. He said, 'Well, you can stand outside six feet away.' It was fricking 30 degrees! I'm going to go stand outside in the yard to see his kid?"
Kean said he has continued to work and socialize during COVID.
"My life continues to go on," he said. "I'd like a relationship with him and maybe on his time we will. ... I'm not pushing him away, but I'm not going to bend over to what he wants."
Kean said not meeting Rhodes bothers him "a little."
'I hope that they can listen'
Shari hopes her children will find space to talk about their differences, and to remind one another of what ultimately connects them.
"I hope that they can listen, really listen to each other," she said. "Sure, conversations can get heated, but that's what makes family special because when you're family, you can have heated conversations, and then you can say, 'But I still respect you and I don't have to agree with you to love you.'"
Caitlyn said she expects for her family, a relative peace will require the world to return to "normal." Brennan is fully vaccinated and Haylee has her first dose. Caitlyn said she plans to get vaccinated soon. Shari and her husband are vaccinated, and Ryan too. Kean has had his first dose.
"I do care what other people think," Brennan said. "And I know that all of my family members who are a little bit more conservative and really anti-mask, they just think that I'm this pain in the butt. And they would rather be without me."
No one said they would rather be without him.
"I want to hang out with Brennan," Ryan said. "What do you want to do? We can go for a walk outside in the park. It's still cautious. Let's go."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID pandemic divided one family. Will their relationships recover?