For this California family of six, every outing follows a certain pattern. "Oh, it's twins!" onlookers coo when they first see the double strollers. Then they cry, "Oh, triplets!" and finally they exclaim in recognition," It's them! The Frustacis!" Sam and Patti give a parental smile; Joseph, 2, puffs up with big brother pride, and three little heads—Patti, Richard and Stephen—nod, oblivious to their celebrity.

One year ago Patti became the first American woman ever to give birth to septuplets. One of the children died at birth, and within 19 days three more had died. This Wednesday the remaining children celebrate their first birthday amid party hats, three donated cakes, balloons and a slew of adoring relatives at their Riverside home.

The festivities also reflect their parents' resilience. "We're starting to see a glimmer of light," says Patti. "Before they were just fighting for survival." It has been a year of crises, as well as close to $2 million in medical costs. First-born Patti is the healthiest, but even today she is underweight (14 pounds) for a 1-year-old. All three children have been on and off medication to fight infection. On oxygen until a few weeks ago, the boys wear monitors at night that emit an alarm if they stop breathing. Both have logged time in the hospital: Stephen (12 pounds) for pneumonia and a hernia operation, Richard (13 pounds)for pneumonia and ear surgery. Because of their traumatic birth, both boys may also have cerebral palsy, but doctors won't know until they're older. Last October the Frustacis filed a still-pending malpractice and wrongful death lawsuit against the Tyler Medical Clinic and the doctor who prescribed Patti's fertility drug.

Like parents everywhere, Sam and Patti relish their children's emerging personalities. "Everybody takes to [baby] Patti," says Sam, an industrial salesman. "She rules the roost." Mom Patti loves brown-eyed Richard's dimpled chin, calling it his "Robert Mitchum look," while Stephen's perpetually amazed blue eyes have earned him the nickname "Stevie Wonder."

The babies finally tucked into their cribs at 8:30 p.m., the Frustacis (who have occasional help) sit back after another frenzied day. With a tender smile, Sam embraces his wife and murmurs, "You're prettier now than when I married you." "You sweet talker, you," replies Patti, resting her head on his shoulder. Suddenly three piercing cries erupt, and the harried Frustacis are off to their little ones.