MILWAUKEE — Day after day, Raghuvinder and Jaspreet Singh hovered by their nearly comatose father and repeated a single word — a word he had probably spoken more than any other in his lifetime: ‘‘Waheguru.’’
The Punjabi word is a term Sikhs use to refer to God. Roughly translated, it describes the wondrous expression of God’s presence. For 65-year-old Punjab Singh, an internationally known Sikh priest who hasn’t spoken and barely has moved since a white supremacist shot him in the head last summer, the word meant everything.
Doctors had cautioned that Singh’s prognosis was grim. But his sons were convinced that prayer, love, and constant companionship would help their father heal. So they remained by his bedside 24 hours a day at a long-term care facility in Wisconsin, alternating shifts and sleeping in a bed next to his.
Every day they repeated the word ‘‘waheguru’’ and watched for a response. For weeks there was nothing. Then on Jan. 9 he began to move his mouth, apparently trying several times to say the word. The next day he tried 30 times.
In coming days, his sons spoke the word more than 100 times. Each time he moved his mouth to match the rhythm of their syllables, in what his speech therapist said appeared to be attempted repetition. He couldn’t vocalize because of a tube in his throat, and couldn’t move his lips deftly enough to lip-synch, but it was clear to Raghuvinder and Jaspreet what their father was trying to say.
‘‘It was a happy moment for our family,’’ Raghuvinder Singh said.
Punjab Singh was wounded Aug. 5 when a gunman opened fire at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. Six Sikh worshipers were killed and three other people were injured. The motive of the gunman, who killed himself, is unknown.
Of those wounded, Punjab Singh suffered the most severe injuries. A single bullet to his face damaged brain tissue, blood vessels, and the brain stem. He remained in a coma for two months, and a pair of strokes nearly paralyzed his left side.
Improvement has been marginal, but unusual enough for a patient in his condition that his doctor calls the progress remarkable. After five months, Singh can move his eyes to track movement on either side of him, he tries to mouth words and he seems genuinely aware of his surroundings.
However, Singh’s best-case prospects remain limited. He probably will never walk again and while awareness may improve, communication will probably be limited to deliberate eye blinks, simple gestures, and perhaps whispered words. As long as he stays stable, there is a chance for more improvement, according to his doctor.
The doctor spoke about Singh’s condition with permission from his family, who asked that the hospital and its staff not be identified. The Singhs worry that if Punjab Singh’s location is revealed, either explicitly or indirectly by mention of his doctors, well-meaning Sikhs will flock to his bedside to pray for a priest known across the globe.
Nearly half a year after the Wisconsin shooting, well-wishers still travel daily to the family’s home in India and ask to come in and pray for Singh, his son said.
‘‘A lot of people are praying for him in their homes and temples,’’ Raghuvinder Singh said.
A few weeks ago, a follower in California called Raghuvinder Singh and began singing a Sikh hymn. Singh put the phone near his father’s ear and saw him smile slightly for the first time since the attack.