After 27 months in care, Gary Parkinson, the former Blackpool coach who suffers from locked-in syndrome, is home for Christmas
23:07 GMT, 23 December 2012
Nine-year-old Sophie Parkinson took a deep breath and recited her line: 'I won't be cooking my turkey until Christmas Day because I'll be too busy.'
No doubt more significant words were spoken during Sacred Heart Primary's carol service but few resonated so powerfully with the congregation. In their midst was Sophie's father Gary Parkinson, the reason why this Christmas is so special to her.
The former Blackpool coach has locked-in syndrome. A stroke in 2010 left him paralysed and needing 24-hour residential care. That is until last week, when he returned home permanently.
Family support: Deborah has been a tower of strength for Gary (right) who suffers from locked-in syndrome
That night in Sacred Heart Church, surrounded by his family, Gary's head lifted to listen intently to his daughter's soft voice. His eyes were bright, welling with tears of pride.
There could be no words, they weren't needed, it was just enough for wife Deborah to recognise the scale of the step forward they had taken.
It has been 27 arduous months since Gary, once a dynamic full-back with Middlesbrough, Preston and Burnley, had a bleed on the brain that crushed his brainstem. His body shut down but his mind and soul were very much alive. He was 42.
The road to recovery as a patient at Priory Highbank Centre for neuro-rehabilitation, near Bury, has been tinted dark and light. The concert marked a new beginning: one the family feared they would never see.
On target: Parkinson enjoyed successful stints at Middlesbrough, Burnley and Preston (pictured)
'Carol services can be emotional at the best of times,' says Deborah, 'but that was a real tear-jerker. The hymns and carols all seemed to carry greater meaning.
'We've had outings before while Gary was at the centre but this was a big step for us as a family and Gary coped really well. He was so proud of Sophie and everyone there could see that.'
Deborah, a former childminder, shatters the stereotype of a footballer's wife. She is irrepressible. She excuses her croaky voice. It's not down to emotion, but a cold.
Black and white: Gary in a family portrait with Deborah, son Luke and daughters Chloe and Sophie
She has beaten red tape and financial obstacles to get her husband of 22 years back to the family home near Bolton. Now a revamp and two-storey extension mean her dream, or at least part of it, has come true. That first night for the reunited family was one to savour.
'After all we have been through, it was just such a lovely, lovely night,' says Deborah. 'It was like a new baby coming home. We were all so excited to have him back where he belongs.'
Gary uses a Tobii, an innovative communication box, to get his message across. A pad, about 12 inches across, reads his eye movement to pick out letters and browse the internet.
Son Luke, 19, a sports journalism student at Leeds University, has already set up dad's favourite sports sites. Eldest daughter Chloe, 16, a tower of strength for her mother, hung on dad's every word.
'We have an armchair next to his bed and we chatted and chatted like a normal family again,' says Deborah.
'The girls made him laugh. It was getting late and every time they said they were going to bed because they had school the next day, he'd mark out the words: “Stay up!” Chloe wanted to act as second carer so ended up staying up to make sure he went to sleep soundly. She went to bed in the early hours.
'We were all nervous about what would happen but once he settled he was fine. He said something lovely, “I feel relaxed”. I just stared at him, he looked so healthy.
'It was a wonderful feeling. A night I'd only dreamed about for two years and thought would never come.'
A trip to the cinema to see Nativity 2 is the family's next planned outing but for now they are just glad to have Gary home.
Back home: The football fraternity have looked out for Parkinson
Although Gary can't eat, he likes to sit at the dining table while everyone else has dinner, a tradition the family has always upheld.
The Tobii box allows him to join in with the banter he honed in dressing rooms as he cracks jokes and chips in with answers to the odd quiz question. He is also something of a backseat driver, where his sense of humour shines through.
'He always said I drove too fast,' Deborah says. 'His eyes go up when I ask him, “Am I driving OK” So I tend to do about 50 or 60 on the motorway when he's with me.'
Gary's care at Priory Highbank was around the clock and cost 4,000 a week. At home, seven nurses care for Gary, two per day, on a rota. Deborah is also a carer.
As she says, 'I've always been one to ask: “How does this work”' From an early stage, she sought inspiration in the words and actions of other sufferers.
One, Kate Allatt, recovered fully and visited Gary to prove 'the impossible was do-able'. Inevitably, downsides have come. Another sufferer, Tony Nicklinson wanted the right to die. His death in August from pneumonia and starvation was sorely felt in the Parkinson household.
'But that was Tony's choice,' says Deborah. At times, the odds seem stacked against them. Yet, like a true football underdog, Deborah won't allow her husband to be beaten.
Positivity remains her motto for the man who once cleaned Andy Gray's boots as an Everton apprentice and thankfully the football fraternity has been there for them.
The PFA have helped financially and chief executive Gordon Taylor visited often during Gary's physiotherapy.
Everton manager David Moyes popped round last week with an invitation to watch training and Middlesbrough manager Tony Mowbray has asked Gary to scout for him, studying a DVD of players and providing reports on each.
Old team-mates have been frequent visitors. Best man at their wedding, ex-Middlesbrough striker Lee Turnbull, and former Preston and Burnley midfielder David Eyres have been constant sources of strength. The support has been overwhelming at times, especially from the local community.
Deborah adds: 'People want to stop you and offer support but I have good friends who know well enough when not to ask and just say “Come and have a cup of tea”.
'We don't want people to feel sorry for us. Everything has to be positive. Gary is a fighter. The one thing about neuro damage is that no-one can predict how it turns out and you have to hope. 'Who knows what can happen'
For information visit GaryParky.co.uk. Donations are welcome to the Gary Parkinson Trust Fund.