They waited 7-1/2 years, sometimes sitting vigil at the bedside of their son, brother and father, a police officer who took a bullet in the forehead and drifted all that time in the shadows of coma.
They never gave up hope Gary Dockery would somehow pull through. And this week it seemed all prayers were answered when he woke up, spoke to his sister and cracked jokes as if no time had passed.
“I looked up at him and he had a look I had never seen before,” Lisa Dockery said through a hospital spokeswoman Wednesday. “He seemed so at ease and his eyes were wide open.
“‘I’m your sister,’ she said.
“Uh-huh,” he responded.
“You’re talking!” she exclaimed.
“I sure am,”’ he answered brightly.
“There’s not but one way to describe it,” said family friend Tim Thompson. “It’s a miracle of God.’ But the miracle may prove an ending rather than a beginning: one last chance to say goodbye. The family chose to have him undergo life-saving surgery today to fight the pneumonia filling his lungs with fluid. It was a terrible choice to have to make: doctors said the anesthesia may well sedate forever the last working parts of his brain.
“This isn’t a success story,” said his son Shane, a little dazed from the emotions of the last days and an onslaught of calls from reporters who learned Wednesday of Dockery’s apparent recovery. “He’s very sick.”
On Sept. 7, 1988, Patrol Officer Dockery answered a trouble call in Walden, a mountain town 15 miles northeast of Chattanooga. He was shot point-blank with a .22-caliber derringer as he stood talking to the 911 caller in his driveway.
The shooter, Samuel Frank Downey, now 68, told officers he’d placed the bogus call to get back at police for reprimanding him about noise after neighbors complained. Downey was sentenced to 37 years in prison and will be eligible for parole this May.
When he awoke Monday, Dockery remembered neither the shooting nor taking the Walden police job just three months before. He does recall his divorce, working as a security guard for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the eight years he spent with the Lookout Mountain police.
All those years in a coma, Dockery communicated occasionally. Doctors said he would blink his eyes once or twice to answer questions, and grimace and groan from time to time. Sean said he also spoke the words “yes” and “no” on occasion, but the family was never sure how much he understood them.
He has no idea who is president - Ronald Reagan was in the White House when he was shot. He was spared O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. He has no concept of the Internet. He’d likely be mystified to learn the United States had waged war against Iraq and has thousands of soldiers keeping the peace in a place that was still called Yugoslavia.
And now is not the time to make him current, say family members.
“That’s stuff not as important as us getting to talk to him,” Shane said. “It was like we got a last chance.”
Never surrendering hope, his family initially kept him on life support at a nursing home. He later became strong enough to breathe on his own, but he was fed through a stomach tube.
Last week, seriously ill with a 104 degree fever and lung infection that had worsened to pneumonia, he was transferred to a Chattanooga hospital. His family, expecting the worst, posted someone at his bedside around the clock.
Fluid was removed from his lungs and he was treated with antibiotics. On Monday, Dockery’s fever broke. Without warning, he started to mumble. Then he spoke out distinctly to his sister.
Dockery, now 42, began asking questions and telling jokes. He telephoned his mother and brother and asked for his sons, Colt and Shane, whom he had not seen since they were 5 and 12 years old.
“He talked himself to death that day,” said Shane, now 20. “It was unbelievable.”
Dennis Dockery flew back from a vacation in Nevada when he got the news about his younger brother.
“My knees started shaking and tears came when I heard my brother say, ‘Hi, Buddy,”’ Dennis Dockery said.
But Dockery spoke less on Tuesday and not at all on Wednesday, Shane said.
Dockery will undergo surgery today. The hospital said it wouldn’t say anything more until the operation is complete.
Doctors have warned the family that even if Dockery survives surgery, his gunshot-damaged brain may never revive from sedation.
No matter what the coming days and months hold, Dennis Dockery said he’s thankful he got one more chance to tell his brother he loves him.
“This is one of the biggest blessings that’s ever happened to me,” he said.