As the cake candles flickered, relatives and friends singing to seven surviving octuplets on their 10th birthday Saturday had to pause and consider after "happy birthday to ..."
They continued, "... dear everyone. Happy birthday to you!"
The five girls and two boys, part of the world's first set of octuplets born alive, stood behind their large, square cake — half vanilla and half chocolate — and blew out the candles with gusto, their days as preemies on respirators far behind them.
All seven — girls Ebuka, Gorom, Chidi, Chima and Echerem, and their brothers Ikem and Jioke — were born three months prematurely in December 1998 at a Houston hospital. Their weight at birth ranged from 11 ounces to 1 pound, 11 ounces.
'It's just a miracle'
On Saturday, they acted like most children at a birthday party, eating cake and pizza, laughing, and running around with their 6-year-old sister Favor.
Their mother and father, Nigeria natives Nkem Chukwu and Iyke Louis Udobi, said they are astonished and grateful that their children have grown up to be healthy and active kids who are now in the fourth grade.
"It's amazing. It's wonderful. It's just a miracle," said Chukwu, who had used fertility drugs.
Saturday wasn't really a birthday for Ebuka, who was delivered first on Dec. 8. The other seven arrived 12 days later. Odera, the tiniest at 10.3 ounces, died of heart and lung failure a week after being born.
Fran Jacoby, a family friend, said she is amazed how big the children have become. She was part of a small army of volunteers who helped the family the first few years.
"They were so tiny. Echerem had a hard time eating. They are all so healthy now," she said during the small party, held at a Marriott hotel.
Also at the party was Chukwu's mother, Janet, whose son-in-law called the 73-year-old matriarch "the commander."
Assembly lines to feed family
Family and friends described how Janet Chukwu set up assembly lines when the children were smaller, to feed them. She also helped design a color system for their clothing during the week: red on Monday, maroon on Tuesday, yellow on Wednesday, light blue or pink on Thursday, and their school T-shirts on Friday. She also leads the kids in prayer at morning and at night.
"Janet can be strict, but at night they all want to go to her room," Jacoby said.
During the party, whenever the children would get unruly, Janet Chukwu would say something to them in a language from her native Nigeria, and they would quickly calm down.
"Once she talks, they know it's serious," Nkem Chukwu, 37, said.
The kids agreed that Ebuka was the best student and Ikem was the messiest eater. Chima is the tallest, and all the kids pointed to her when asked whom the boss of the group was.
"She helps a lot with Grandma," Echerem said.
Family uses a 16-passenger van
Shy at first, the kids quickly opened up and at one point even helped hold a microphone for a local television station cameraman as he interviewed one of the siblings.
The family still lives in a six-bedroom home in the Houston suburb of League City that was donated to them. The kids get shuttled around in a 16-passenger van.
Nkem Chukwu said that raising all her children has been rewarding. Her husband works as a respiratory therapist, and she "has more than a full-time job" as a stay-at-home mom.
"We have great help. My mom has been wonderful," she said. "What everyone should know is that God has been our strength, our support," Nkem Chukwu said.