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Nathan McCaughey is determined not to be left behind. While sister Natalie and brothers Joel Brandon and Kenny Jr. play daredevil on their bikes -- racing downhill, popping wheelies, making hairpin turns in the driveway -- Nathan tries mightily to keep up on his tricycle. "It has really fat wheels, so I can go anywhere," he says proudly of his sturdy, all-terrain minimachine. Later, inside the house, he makes the long walk from the den to the kitchen and around the 10-seat dining counter, his brow furrowed with all the concentration he can muster. His leg braces, crutches, and walker are nowhere to be seen; Nathan's halting steps are all on his own. "Don't slouch -- keep your back straight," says mom Bobbi, 37, encouragingly. The boy stops, focuses, and stands a little taller.
"Yeah, that's the way," says dad Kenny Sr., 35, who has come home early from his assembly-line job. When Nathan reaches his destination -- the hardware drawer -- he promptly fishes out a flashlight. "Dad, do you have batteries?" he asks. Kenny pops them in, and soon Nathan is on his way out the door with a grin on his face and a glint in his eye.Nathan's Successful Surgery
There's plenty of reason for smiles all around. Nathan, who has cerebral palsy, had been unable to walk unassisted since birth, the result of a related condition -- spastic diplegia -- that causes his leg muscles to tense, tighten, and stiffen uncontrollably. He underwent a four-hour operation at Gillette Children's Specialty HealthCare, in St. Paul, Minnesota, last November, during which neurosurgeons tested some 250 spinal nerve roots through an incision in his lower back in an attempt to isolate and clip partway through those adversely affecting his gait.
The procedure was a success. Six weeks of intensive physical therapy helped him take his first tentative, wobbly steps. "The surgery corrected his knees -- they're no longer bent and crooked -- allowing his feet to point forward," Bobbi says. "And that helps him stand straighter, in less of a crouched position, which helps him walk better." Nathan has since made steady progress, but there are miles to go. "He can zip through the house without stopping, but he still falls all the time, and he still needs crutches or his walker to get through the day at school," Bobbi says. Now in thrice-weekly therapy sessions, Nathan must learn to relax his upper body (he'd gotten in the habit of tensing and scrunching up) and use his abdomen and back muscles to balance himself if he's ever going to develop a more efficient stride.
Looking back on that eventful day, the McCaugheys remember a very brave little boy. Right before the operation, as friends and family -- and TV news crews -- gathered around, Nathan cried as Kenny held him in his arms. "That was out of embarrassment -- he didn't like being the focus of all that attention," Bobbi says. "What nobody except Kenny saw was that as soon as they went into the operating room, he stopped." Nathan was calm as anesthetics were administered and he was asked to count backward from 100.
"After 97, he was out," says Kenny. "Now he likes to brag to other kids that it's no big deal when they put you under." And what about Dad? Did he put on a brave face to mask his own fears? "Actually, I felt such trust that things would be fine that I wasn't at all nervous," Kenny says. "I was feeling great joy because I knew it was a big turning point for Nathan -- and a big step for him toward independence."
In fact, all of the septuplets, who turned 8 on November 19, have made great leaps forward this past year. "There's been a big jump in their maturity level, and they're starting to understand more complex things," Kenny says.
"You can reason with them more and have meaningful conversations," adds Bobbi. "We can ask them questions like 'Do you know why what you did wasn't appropriate?' or 'Do you understand why you need to apologize?' We talk a lot more about right versus wrong, about stopping to think whether what you're doing might hurt someone. Most of the time when the kids misbehave, we simply send them to their rooms for quiet time. But Kenny and I can raise our voices and get really angry when they've done something wrong when they definitely know better."Crowd Control at Home
A ruckus erupts outside, and Kenny goes out to investigate. Minutes later, Natalie and Joel storm into the kitchen, sobbing. Dad has scolded them for not keeping a close enough eye on Nathan, who has turned on the garden hose and gotten wet, and is punishing them by canceling plans to go to the kids' favorite restaurant that night. "We're not going?" Joel shouts, throwing his toy suitcase in anger; Bobbi promptly banishes him to his room. Then Kenny Jr. (a.k.a. Bert) and Brandon start acting up, chasing each other and breaking a toy mirror, sending glass shards across the floor.
"Take it easy!" says Kenny sharply. "Did I give you guys a license to go nuts?"
"So can't we go to dinner?" Bert beseeches.
"Oh, of course we are," replies Kenny, exasperated by this failed exercise in crowd control. "Just everybody calm down." Meltdown suspended.
Although the septuplets sometimes get raucous at home, they're model students at the public elementary school in Carlisle, Iowa, where they're in separate second-grade classes. "Last year was wonderful -- they all got excellent report cards," says Bobbi. While only fourth-graders and up get letter grades, the septuplets did well in reading and math; Natalie, Brandon and Joel were at the top of their class. Big sister Mikayla, 9, who'd been homeschooled until last fall, finished fourth grade with an impressive four A's and a B.
Nathan, who missed nearly two months of classes because of his surgery, and sister Alexis, whose speech and cognitive skills are impaired by cerebral palsy, got some extra help with their reading, writing, and arithmetic from Carlisle Elementary's first-grade special-education teacher, Valerie McCaughey, 49, who just happens to be Kenny Sr.'s stepmother. "The kids would come home and talk about her not as 'Grandma' but 'Mrs. McCaughey,'" Bobbi says. "And if one of the other students called her Grandma, my kids would say, 'Hey, she's not your Grandma, she's ours.'"Alexis's Thriving Educational and Physical Skills
Alexis thrived under the tutoring. "We know she'll never break records," says Bobbi. "We don't care if she can't read 50 words a minute as long as she's comprehending and retaining knowledge, which she is. For example, it took her a couple weeks to learn her vocabulary list of words that can't be sounded out, like 'enough' or 'two,' but once she did, she absolutely knew them from then on."
Bobbi does see room for improvement, however, when it comes to Alexis's physical skills. Cerebral palsy, specifically a condition known as hypotonic quadriplegia, has weakened the muscles in all her limbs. She will undergo an operation in a year or two to strengthen her feet, though apart from using a walker at school, she prefers to crawl. "Since starting physical therapy this year, Alexis is more willing to stand and walk on her own," Bobbi says. "But she's definitely not as motivated as Nathan."The Young Violinists Debut
Meanwhile, the children have been on hiatus from their other lessons -- on the violin -- since summer. The gang of eight, whose repertoire includes beginner classics like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "Shortnin' Bread," made their debut at the fiddle competition at the Iowa State Fair, in Des Moines, last year. "They played a couple of hoedown-, square dance-type numbers," Bobbi says. "They'd barely begun when people started yahooin' and yeehawin' and clap ping their hands. It was a hoot."
When Bobbi finds a new teacher -- their old one moved away -- only Mikayla, Kelsey, Natalie, and Brandon, who all showed talent, will be rosining their bows. The downsizing is balm to Kenny's ears. "It's not the easiest instrument to listen to when they're practicing -- pretty loud and screechy," he says, chuckling.
For the moment, the house is quiet; the kids have all retired upstairs to their rooms, which got a professional makeover last spring. Mikayla is lounging on her canopy bed in her princess palace, all done up in fuchsia and frills replete with a curtained stage, where she likes to perform Disney songs karaoke style with her gal pals. She doesn't use her feather-covered phone much ("it sounds too fuzzy," she says) or the TV ("my favorite shows are That's So Raven and Lizzie McGuire, but I only watch with Mom's permission"). The septuplets, though, aren't above sneaking in to catch some cartoons, so Mikayla often has to shoo them away.Natalie, Kelsey, and Alexis's Room
Natalie, Kelsey, and Alexis's room next door is a cozy, lived-in mess -- dresser drawers open, the toy tea table knocked over, beds crumpled and unmade. The sisters share a triple bunk, which Natalie prefers to use as a jungle gym. "I like this best," she says, plopping down on a cushion cover-topped storage bench at the foot of the bed. "Want to see why?" Lithe and ballerina thin, she stands up, springboards off the bench toward her top bunk, grabs the footboard, then hangs there and swings, giggling.
With her tomboy ways behind her, Kelsey, who loves how "color-y and flowery" the room is, has just finished packing her little blue shoulder purse to take to dinner. What's inside? "Oh, you know, girl stuff," she says. And sweet-tempered Alexis quietly sits on her bottom bunk, cuddling a baby doll, then scoots over to the storage shelves and starts patiently digging through one of her baskets. As the septuplet who most enjoys solitude, Alexis likes to hole up in the room and listen to the radio, especially violin music.Brandon and Joel's Room
Down the hall, in the bedroom he shares with Brandon, Joel sits on one of the boat-shaped twin beds -- also unmade -- poking at his brother's favorite toy, a stuffed soldier that sings "We will, we will rock you!" "It drives me crazy," says Bert. "Yeah, me too," says Joel. "Grandma says not to put batteries in it." Not that Brandon listens; in fact, he likes to hold his soldier up to the intercom and play the tune through the whole house. A little macho man, Brandon likes all things army -- his current hero is his father's brother, Jason McCaughey, 30, who served as a sergeant in the military police in Iraq last year. ("He carried a gun and got the bad guys," says Brandon.)Bert and Nathan's Room
Bert heads into his and Nathan's room for his favorite thing -- a great big stuffed bear. "Daddy always pretends that he's eating us," he says. "And we all like to jump on him from the top of the bunk beds!" Bobbi comes in, side-stepping the Legos scattered all over the floor. So what happened to that famous septuplet discipline -- the tidy kids who washed themselves, did their own laundry, and cleaned up their rooms? "Well, we all have our off days," she says, laughing. "Plus now the seps' big threat to each other is, 'If you make me mad, I'm gonna go mess up your room!' They're their own best friends and worst enemies -- just like when I was a kid."A Night on the Town
It's almost 6 p.m., and Bobbi and Kenny start rounding up the kids for their big night out. "Know what I'm having?" asks Alexis, who can hardly wait. "Macaroni and cheese." It seems to be the seps' meal of choice. Slowly, Nathan walks into the kitchen.
"Want to see my wallet?" he asks. He digs it out of his pants pocket and pulls out two dollar bills, four quarters, and seven pennies. "How much is that?" Enough to buy dinner, he's told. "No way," he says. "I can't do that until I'm 18!"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, December 2005.