MOORHEAD — When you walk into the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott on this summer afternoon, you’re greeted by the low rumble of conversation and the smell of tacos and s’mores drifting from a meeting room down the hall.
Guests, walking around looking at long tables full of framed photos, scrapbooks and T-shirt quilts, stop to give hugs of congratulations to Moorhead High School’s newest, and perhaps most highly publicized graduates, Jacob, Bethany, Kevin and Alyssa Christoffers — the Moorhead quintuplets.
Graduation is the latest, and last, childhood milestone for the Christoffers, who first made news in November of 2001 when they were born 15 weeks early and were believed to be the first set of healthy quintuplets ever born in Minnesota.
“It’s really hard to believe. It’s hard to believe they’re all 18,” said their mom, Collette Christoffers, an assistant professor of nursing at Mayville State University. “You go through all of these little milestones ... sleeping in their own beds, going off to school .... It’s like baby steps. Then all of the sudden here you are. They’re going off to college.”
The prospect of sending multiple children to college the same year was probably the last thing on Collette’s mind when she went in for a routine appointment in July 2001.
"When they went to do the ultrasound, I heard them say, ‘Oh boy, oh boy.’ And then I heard 'uh oh,'” Collette said.
“She came home and she said, ‘We need to talk. There’s five,’” said husband Mike Christoffers, now an associate professor of plant science at North Dakota State University.
Around the time of the quints’ birth, only one in 3.4 million births were quintuplets.
The next few months could be described as a “whirlwind” for the Christoffers, who were already parents to Emily, an active 3-year-old. Collette was trying to eat 4,000 calories a day to make sure her babies were healthy and growing. An eager Jacob tried to come out in October, but doctors were able to hold him off, until late November when all the quints decided it was time. On Nov. 30, Jacob Vernon, Bethany Grace, Robert Michael, Kevin Arthur and Alyssa Joy were born, three and a half months early, each weighing less than 2 pounds apiece.
They spent months in the NICU of Children's Hospital in the Twin Cities trying to gain weight and get stronger. By January, all of the babies were between 4 and 5 pounds, except one. Robert Michael, lovingly called “Bobby,” was not getting better. His lungs were not developing. He died in June 2002.
“I don’t think any parent should ever have to bury a child,” Collette said in a 2002 interview. “That’s the worst thing anybody could ever go through. Bobby was a special little boy. We had him for six months. He’ll always be a part of our family.”
Throughout the years, they’d visit Bobby’s grave and sing "happy birthday" to him every Nov. 30. The four surviving quints held a photograph of their infant brother on one of their graduation cards, and Bobby had his own small table at the graduation open house.
“Sometimes people will refer to them as 'quadruplets' because there are four of them, and in my mind that really negates that Bobby lived,” Collette said.
While still grieving for Bobby, the Christoffers began what would be their new normal, raising not only Emily, but four babies. When a reporter visited one morning in 2002, the babies were still in their pajamas listening to music and lounging on a big fleece blanket in the living room the Christoffers called “Baby Central."
The patient and soft-spoken Collette was organized, hanging up white boards to help the dozens of volunteer caregivers remember who ate when and who hated what. Bethany wasn’t a fan of green vegetables.
The couple estimated they went through close to 30 diapers a day, four to five jars of baby food and 20 bottles of formula.
“I prepare bottles once a day, in the morning, but I have them all ready. Kevin is blue, Bethany is white, Alyssa is pink and Jacob is teal,” she said.
Looking back now, the Christoffers say those first few years were “kind of a blur.”
“We had this very organized structure, just for sanity’s sake, because it was like you ran your own little day care, but the kids didn’t go home at 5 o’clock,” Collette said.
It was mostly about just getting through the day, but the couple said they tried not to worry about the future too much.
“Someone will say ‘Oh, just wait until you have to potty train all of them or just wait until they all get their driver's licenses or just wait until they all go to college,” Mike said.
Milestones in the rearview mirror
So now most of those milestones have come and gone. How’d they go? More than anything, Mom and Dad learned some hard lessons in individuality — their quintuplets were very much their own people. Case in point: potty training.
“I had this brilliant idea. If you train one of them, the others will just copy, and they’ll train each other. That was a huge mistake,” Collette said with a big laugh.
It went that way for most things, each Christoffers quint dictating their own path as they grew. Jacob grew to like taekwondo and music, Kevin played the cello, Bethany concentrated on schoolwork, and Alyssa loved art.
Growing up, Collette and Mike encouraged the kids to each get their own group of friends.
“We wanted them to be seen as individuals and not a pack, not a group. Because, yes, they were born at the same time. Beyond that, they’re each individual, and they’re siblings,” Collette said.
Even big sister Emily, whom Collette said “walked on water," according to the quints, encouraged individuality with her younger siblings.
“I always pushed the emphasis that you’re your own person. I do very, very different things than my siblings,” Emily said. “I just say, ‘Do what makes you happy.’ ”
Looking to the future
As the quintuplets each hold their own graduation cake at the open house and stand by their individual tables full of memorabilia, it’s hard for them not to reflect a little on the last 12 years of school — band and orchestra concerts, shared soccer teams and football games.
The quints say, looking back, it was probably about first or second grade when they realized their family situation was a little different. Other students who noticed they had the same last name asked if they were cousins. And while they don’t know what it’s like to not be a multiple, they say there are advantages.
“You’re never really by yourself, which I think is good,” Bethany said.
“You always have someone to lean on,” Jacob added.
Or perhaps get in the way a little.
The Christoffers’ senior year was, no doubt, an odd one, with distance learning in the middle of a pandemic.
“You couldn’t walk anywhere in the house without someone being on video,” Alyssa said.
“I actually quite enjoyed quarantine because I had a lot more time to be able to do the things that I wanted to do without being responsible for those more social interactions,” Kevin said.
Given the current situation, the quintuplets, even though they’ve graduated from high school, might still get to spend a lot of time together as a family. Right now all four of them work at Eventide. Jacob, Bethany and Kevin are all living at home and going to NDSU. The boys will study computer science, and Bethany is undecided. Even Alyssa, who plans to study art at Pratt Institute in New York City, might still be home if the school decides to hold its semester online.
“So, you know, come this fall even though all four of them are going off to college, there's no empty nest. And that's kind of bittersweet. It's like, I'm happy because I'll know where they'll all be, and I know they'll be safe,” Collette said. “But at the same time, that's a milestone, too, that I've been waiting for is, you know, there might be tears with the empty nest, but I don't know that I'm gonna have any.”
Helping the next generation
When the Christoffers quints were born, volunteer caregivers, including friends from church and family members, sought advice from other families with multiples. Now, with childhood behind them, Mike and Collette can offer words of wisdom.
“I don’t know if parents are ever really wise. We’re always learning something,” Collette said.
"I would say there are days, eventually, when you don't think of it as something unusual anymore. It just becomes the way life is, and you have to remind yourself that it is different, but it's not overwhelming. It's something you can do," Mike said.