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Professional beach volleyball player Kevin Wong relaxing in Waikiki
Vol.12, No. 2
April / May 2009

  >>   Architect of Stories
  >>   Life on the Fringe
 

The Baby Bunch 
Story By: Sarah Johnson
Photos By: Elyse Butler

When Marcie Cameros first met Ray Dela Cruz, she was 21 and he was 47. She was childless and wanted kids, but he’d already had five—and that, he thought, was enough. When they were introduced at her sister’s house in Kane‘ohe, they fell for each other, though if you’d asked them the odds on whether they’d stay together, they both would’ve guessed they’d last a year, tops. But surprises happen, and in the case of Marcie and Ray, a lot of surprises. They stayed together a decade and, at the end of it, got married. 

After the marriage, Ray agreed to try for a child. But it wasn’t a simple proposition. He had had a vasectomy before he met Marcie, and it couldn’t be reversed. So the couple went to see fertility specialists, and the doctors managed to collect enough little swimmers to create nine tiny embryos. Doctors placed two in Marcie and put the rest into cold storage. One took, and nine months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy whom the thrilled couple named Makaio. A year later they decided to try for another baby. Once again the doctors placed two embryos in Marcie. And then things got wild.

Eight weeks into the pregnancy, on a Tuesday she’ll never forget, Marcie was on her way to work when she noticed she was bleeding. Fearing she might be having a miscarriage, she headed for the ER at Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women & Children. A few tests later and her trepidation had turned to joy: She wasn’t having a miscarriage; she was likely having twins. Marcie’s mother, Dana, flew in from Moloka‘i to be there for her daughter’s regularly scheduled checkup a few days later. Marcie’s niece Chelae had come, too, so there were three of them in the room that Friday, all watching the screen, when the doctor started the ultrasound. Marcie saw three kidney-shaped beans on the monitor. Marcie looked at her mother and niece. “Is that three?” she asked the doctor. The doctor gave the nurse measurements for Baby A. Then for Baby B. When the nurse asked, “And Baby C?” and the doctor rattled off another set of measurements, Marcie, mother and niece all flipped: triplets. “I’ve got to call Ray,” Marcie thought. Her husband was at his job as a roofer, and all she could think when she dialed his number was: I hope he doesn’t jump off.

Two days later everyone was still reeling from the news. Marcie’s thoughts were racing: How are we going to do this? How will we care for them? How much will it cost? She and Ray and Dana headed to church. It was Mother’s Day, and during the service mother after mother stood up to 
give testimonials. What Marcie heard through it all was: God won’t give you anything that you can’t handle. She cried through the service, but by the end her mind was calm. “I will trust this,” she affirmed, “because this is a blessing from God. We’ll just take everything a day at a time.”

A week later Marcie went back for her next checkup, this time by herself. A different doctor was doing the ultrasound. “A, B, C … wait,” he said. “Wait a minute.” “Yes, A, B, C, that’s right,” Marcie said. The doctor peered closer, then said, “I think you’re having quads.” “Say that again,” said Marcie. “I think you’re having quads.”

Ray was four stories up when Marcie called, but he didn’t jump. He also didn’t believe it when she told him about Baby D. “I’m serious, Ray,” she said. “So serious.” The couple was referred to a specialist to discuss terminating one or several of the fetuses. But that day at church Marcie had decided that she was all in, come what may. And Ray told her he would support any decision she made.

It would be another whole month of weekly checkups before Baby E was discovered. This time everyone was there: Ray, Dana, Chelae and, of course, Marcie. The doctor was scanning way over by her kidneys when he said, in the most matter-of-fact way, “I think there’s another baby in here.” Doctor and technician went back and forth for a good three minutes before they announced that yes, there was definitely a Baby E. Marcie’s mom squeezed her daughter’s hand, both in disbelief.

The odds of what was happening now were somewhere between one in thirteen million to fifteen million. One of the embryos had remained whole and was developing into a girl, but the other had split and split and split and was developing into four identical boys. And now the risks to Marcie and the babies she was carrying were very real. Two of the boys had what’s known as twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, where one essentially steals the other’s nutrients. If the smaller one were to die, the larger one might, too, and the others might suffer strokes. That could force Marcie to go into early labor. Born so young, all of the babies, if they even survived, would likely have catastrophic disabilities.

The doctors encouraged Marcie to abort the twin-to-twin transfusion boys, but she refused. She named the weaker of the two Keahi, Hawaiian for “fire,” and started to talk to him. “I need you to fight,” she told him. “When you get bigger and you’re naughty, I’ll remember why I gave you that name, and it’ll be OK. Just survive.”

Marcie was at the twenty-three-week mark when doctors discovered she was dilated and having contractions. She was shot up with hormones to stave off delivery, admitted to the hospital and remained there until she gave birth six weeks later. All five of the babies were delivered by caesarean, all one minute apart, on October 10, 2015, between 5:02 and 5:06 p.m. Keahi was the smallest at one pound ten ounces; the girl—Kamali‘i, or “royal child”—was the largest at two pounds, eleven ounces. All were perfectly healthy despite their elfin size. They went straight to the neonatal ICU and stayed there, growing and gathering strength and gradually being released out into the world until the last two went home on Christmas Eve: the first known quintuplets ever born in the Islands. Even more astonishing, they are the first quintuplets with a set of identical quadruplets known to have been born anywhere, ever. 

At home, life was a whirlwind. Sixty diaper changes a day. Feedings every three hours for a total of forty a day. The babies wore color-coded wristbands so everyone could tell them apart. After four months Marcie had it down, and after five and a half months Makaio did, too. Ray still gets them confused occasionally.

These days all eight live together in a small rented house in Pearl City. Ray and Marcie dream of buying a home, but with Hawai‘i’s cost of living, they can’t afford even day care. Marcie went back to her job as a corporate trainer at American Savings Bank, and Ray retired to become a stay-at-home dad. The humor isn’t lost on him: a 64-year-old grandfather of fifteen caring for five babies he still can’t always tell apart—it’s the stuff of a sitcom writer’s dreams. He takes it all in stride, and Marcie adores him for it. “He’s absolutely wonderful,” she said one morning recently, watching as he raced around doling out cereal and changing diapers. “I was scared when I went back to work. How will he handle things? Will he resent this? Will we make it? I didn’t know and he didn’t, either.” Ray stops moving for a second to smile at his wife. “I’m happy,” he says. “I never spent too much time with my other kids; I was kind of a rascal boy, drank a lot. This is my second chance. When Marcie was pregnant I said, ‘This my punishment—but it’s a good punishment.’”

The couple continue to take their days on faith, even now a bit stupefied by the fact that they have five babies. And the babies never let their parents forget it. They are everywhere in the house, like a circus act or an optical illusion. They are incredibly good as babies go—they’ve learned to self-soothe, and they are almost perfectly in sync: When one gets sick, they all get sick and then it’s over. All gave up their pacifiers at the same time. All began to sleep through the night at the same time, “like they had some sort of mental telepathy conference,” says Marcie.

Yet—and this is the part that fascinates the couple no end—identical as the babies may be, they’re nothing alike. Each already has a distinctive personality. There is Kapena (Hawaiian for “captain”), the firstborn of the boys: calm, cautious, affectionate. There’s Baby E, a.k.a. Kupono (Hawaiian for “righteous”): independent, laid-back, a cool cat. Keahi did become the firecracker his mother urged him to be; he likes to cuddle but he’s feisty. His rival in the twin-to-twin tug-of-war, Kaolu (meaning “pleasant”) was the last one born, the baby of the babies. He’s a joker who pulls stunts to get laughs. The lone girl, Kamali‘i, is sassy and much more 
aggressive than her brothers—perhaps the inevitable result of sharing a womb with four boys. “She’s very good,” says her mother, “but she’s already a tough cookie.”      

All have teeth coming in. All are learning to walk. All love to eat: Poi is a daily treat. They still take bottles but fewer now, and the diaper change count has eased to a mere thirty a day. Ray and Marcie tend to stay away from thoughts of things like college tuition; they plan but they don’t obsess. “I often tell people, ‘It’s overwhelming,’” says Marcie, “‘but I’m not overwhelmed.’”

Just what made that embryo split and split and split? Who knows? Marcie was taking the standard regimen of hormones, but both she and Ray have abundance running through their gene pools—Ray especially. He’s one of seventeen siblings. His mom was a twin, his sister had twins and one of those twins went on to have triplets. There are twins on Marcie’s mother’s side of the family, too. 

For now an easy energy of contentment seems to run through the Dela Cruz house: The chaos feels controlled, the emotions settled, as if all of the calm Marcie marshaled is still right there for the taking. “We know how blessed we are,” she says. “I only hope we do right by them and raise them well.” 

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