WESLEY CHAPEL — The Byler bunch poured out of their 10-passenger van and made a beeline for the kiddie gym, where they could run and scream to their hearts' content while '80s music blared from the speakers.
Not that they don't do that at home.
"It's been brutal," said Ben Byler, who confesses that he looks forward to driving his Pepperidge Farm delivery route each day just to get a break from the chaos. "It's a constant din. I'm sure glad to be done with the Terrible Twos."
On Wednesday it will be three years since Ben, 33, and his wife, Karoline, 32, became parents to Florida's first surviving sextuplets. A daughter, Zoe, who was 4 when they were born, brought the grand total of children to seven.
The group, affectionately dubbed "the six pack" by their parents, had their birthday party Saturday at My Gym. Their births took place amid a crush of news media. Now most of the photographers are amateurs, family and friends snapping away with cell phones as the kids wolf down pizza and Toy Story cupcakes.
"We call them babies, but they're not," Karoline said. "They have their own independent feelings."
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The Byler sextuplets were one of the most sought-after stories even before they were born. Karoline and Ben were the center of media attention back in 2007 when they told people the fertility treatment Karoline underwent to have "just one more" baby had resulted in six.
That Labor Day weekend, Brady, Eli, Ryan, Jackson, Charlie and one girl, MacKenzie, were delivered by caesarean section at Bayfront Medical Center and transported by tunnel to the adjoining All Children's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. Their ankles were as big around as their mother's thumb. All were home by Christmas.
"I just can't believe they're already 3," said Jackie Joos, Karoline's best friend who was at the hospital the night they were born. On Saturday, she watched the same kids chase each other, jump in a ball pit and bat beach balls suspended from the ceiling. "Time has flown by."
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To the Bylers, many of those days seemed to creep.
Like the days they fight over the three green toy telephones that came in McDonald's Happy Meals.
"All these toys they have and they fight over the junk," Karoline said. It's rare when someone isn't sitting in time-out. They also fight over parents' attention.
"My mommy!" they all say and try to grab Karoline when she sits with them on the floor.
"Our home is like survival of the fittest," she said.
On a particularly challenging day, when they were all strapped in their high chairs, "I went out to the garage, closed the door and screamed," Karoline said. "There are times when I wanted to leave the house."
But she gets help from family and friends, and Zoe, now 7, has become skilled at counting heads and reading stories.
The room that used to contain a dining table and sofa has been gated off and turned into playroom, with ride-on toys, a miniature stove set, pretend potato chips and action figures strewn across the floor.
A red vacuum cleaner stays out permanently in the kitchen.
The couple is feeling the squeeze of having nine people in a 2,339-square-foot, three-bedroom home. But the housing bust makes a move out of the question for now.
"Our house has become this big closet," Ben said of the three-bedroom residence. "Fifty pairs of shoes, clothes … it's a nightmare."
To afford the 24 diapers a day they still go through and everything else, they buy in bulk and "coupon like crazy." They once bought 40 bottles of organic cleaner.
All the kids are becoming more individual. Brady, the biggest of the bunch and the alpha male, is the first to take to potty training. Eli loves dinosaurs. Ryan is talking more and remains the best eater. Charlie tries to be very independent, but Jackson is still a "mama's boy." Tiny MacKenzie, who can still fit into some of last year's clothes, is all girl and is rarely seen without a purse on her arm and Silly Bandz on her wrists.
"She calls them her bracelets," Karoline said.
Said Ben: "They've really started to get curious about everything. They're starting to talk a lot."
Except for some minor surgeries for Eli and Charlie, the children are healthy.
Charlie, whose respiratory problems required oxygen, and until recently, nursing care, still struggles with asthma.
Ryan, who was born with mild cerebral palsy, walks with a slight limp but has improved with therapy.
Jackson, who was dubbed "the professor" as a toddler because of his need to check things out, remains very persnickety.
"If he doesn't get the cup he wants, he starts throwing cups," Karoline said. "He freaks."
All remain delayed in speech and motor skills, common conditions with multiples born prematurely. They participated in early intervention programs and now are enrolled in preschool programs through the Pasco County School District's exceptional student education program. Three started classes over the summer. The others started Monday.
Karoline said she wants to use the time to volunteer at the kids' schools.
But for a few hours, Karoline Byler tasted something she hasn't been used to for more than three years.
"Just dropped the last of the kids at school," she wrote Monday to her 551 Facebook friends. "I am a kid free mommy. Wow! This is weird!!''
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.