CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ Gary Dockery has spoken only a few sentences since that extraordinary day nearly two months ago when the brain-damaged former policeman broke seven and a half years of silence.

But relatives who had once given up hope are still encouraged by his ability to give appropriate, if brief, responses to questions and to say good morning or hello.

He can read letters, short words and recognize numbers, said Dr. James Folkening, his longtime physician. He once correctly read numbers on both an analog watch and a digital thermometer.

One thing he needs now, his relatives feel, is encouragement.

His brother, Dennis Dockery, is disappointed that all the relatives and friends who clamored to see him after the initial publicity over his sudden improvement aren't showing up to visit him at the Alexian Village nursing home.

``I told them there would be plenty of time once all the attention blew over and he was back at Alexian,'' Dennis Dockery said. ``Now, I'm having to call people to visit. It's very disappointing. This is the time he needs them the most.''

Dockery, now 42, had been mute and motionless since he was shot in the forehead in 1988 while responding to a report of a domestic disturbance.

Brain damage left him partially paralyzed. He couldn't talk, walk or feed himself.

He occasionally communicated by blinking, nodding or grimacing, but that stopped when visitors diminished after a few years. It was ``as if he'd just given up,'' said Dennis Dockery.

Earlier this year, he developed life-threatening pneumonia. He was taken to a Chattanooga hospital on Feb. 11, and his family was given the choice of risky surgery or letting the disease take his life.

``Some thought he had suffered enough. Others thought we needed to do everything we could to help him,'' Dennis Dockery said.

Two family members argued that night in Dockery's room about whether to let him die.

Four hours later, he started talking, and he kept talking for about 18 hours.

``I couldn't get angry at them for talking in front of him because that may be what caused him to reach into his inner self and save himself,'' Dennis Dockery said.

Encouraged, family members opted for the surgery. Six days after the operation, he spoke again.

One of his sentences was: ``I don't want to go back to the village.''

``When he said he didn't want to go back, the doctor asked him what the village was and he said a nursing home,'' said Dockery's mother, Corena Thompson.

However, he was returned to Alexian Village in mid-March.

Folkening said Dockery's illness, the change of environment, an onslaught of visitors after years of sparse contact and hearing discussions of his death may have contributed to his awakening.

``We will probably never know what caused it,'' he said. ``Our focus now is to take what we got and work with it.''

Asked if he knew he hadn't talked in seven and a half years, Dockery answered yes. When asked how he felt during that time, however, he did not respond.

He correctly identified his youngest son, Colt, only 4 when his father was shot, and never asked why the boy was taller or older.

Folkening said Dockery has little short-term memory. He sometimes has to be reminded who people are, and may have to be reminded again after a few minutes. Other times, he easily recognizes people.

``It's a fuzzy and inconsistent thing,'' Folkening said.

Dockery's mother visits daily. She said her son is lonely and wants company. Both she and Folkening said Dockery has said ``No!'' when they leave.

``It breaks your heart,'' Mrs. Thompson said.

Occasionally, Dockery will ``play possum,'' pretending to be asleep when he's not.

``There are times when he almost plays these games with us where we feel we are dealing with a childlike personality,'' Folkening said. ``Other times, when he is able to interact or relate, there's obviously an adult personality.''

``He's a lot more further along now than he was,'' Dennis Dockery said, ``and that gives us hope. We're just going to have to work it and be patient. If it never happens again, we did have that one day. It's a chance most people don't get. How can you not be happy about something like that?''