DEPTFORD, N.J. - The Wurst family Christmas in Deptford is a traditional affair - a houseful of guests, colorful decorations, presents stacked under the tree. But this year, the front door will be locked, and the family 1,000 miles away.

The thought of sticking around for the holiday is too much for Barbara Wurst to bear, so her entire family is off to Florida this year.

"I just can't be here," Wurst said. "Too many bad memories."

Last Dec. 26, her youngest child, Deptford Patrolman Gary W. Wurst, was on Delsea Drive when a sport-utility vehicle slammed into his cruiser and mounted its roof. The crash crushed his car and propelled it into a tree, reducing it to a pile of twisted metal from which he had to be cut free.

When two somber police officers notified her early the next morning, doctors couldn't tell her whether her son would live. Gary Wurst's brain had swelled and bled; his left thigh and arm bones jutted through the skin. He had a broken pelvis.

The SUV driver, Andrea Paton, 20, was charged with reckless driving.

Barbara Wurst and her husband, also named Gary, sprang into action. They moved back to South Jersey from their new home in Florida, devoting themselves full-time to their only son's recovery - first in the hospital, then at a rehabilitation facility, finally at his home.

Today, they're returning to Florida. Upon his return, Gary Wurst will live independently for the first time since his accident, which left the 25-year-old with some lingering health problems but thankful he's around to celebrate Christmas at all.

"I'm a lucky guy," he said. "I've got a lot of people that care about me."

Still, there are some things Wurst will never get back. The guy whose childhood dream was to become a police officer must officially retire from the force on Jan. 1. He suffered permanent shoulder damage, is perpetually dizzy, and still faces surgery to repair an eyelid. He also has poor short-term memory, a problem that will likely plague him the rest of his life.

"I feel like I'm walking around drunk all the time," Wurst said, smiling.

He will miss the camaraderie of the force but is focused on the next chapter of his life - returning next month to Rowan University, where he is 24 credits away from a law and justice degree, perhaps to prepare for law school, and building a life with his girlfriend.

In the old days, Wurst was a whiz at school; he got A's without cracking a book. This time, he knows it will be tougher.

"The memory isn't perfect yet, and it never will be, but one class at a time," Barbara Wurst said.

She and her husband look forward to resuming their leisurely Florida life, but leaving is bittersweet.

"It's going to be hard. He's actually more protective than I am," Barbara Wurst said pointing to her husband, a retired sheet-metal worker who bolsters their son's spirits with good-natured teasing.

"He's doing good," Gary Wurst said of his son. "It's been a long year."

When the injured Wurst broke down in frustrated tears, his parents comforted him. When he plateaued at rehab, they urged him to keep trying.

Some days, it felt as if Gary Wurst would never relearn such basics as writing and walking, but he prevailed. He can navigate the hallways and steps of his blue rancher without a cane, thanks to the grip bars his father installed and his improving balance.

"I'm getting much better," he said recently.

He hit a huge milestone last week when he was cleared to drive.

"I can't wait to go out with my friends, to do whatever I want to do," he said.

Though he relishes living on his own, Wurst knows he owes a lot to the parents who dropped everything to navigate doctors' appointments, therapies, worker's compensation paperwork, and life's other minutiae.

"I'll miss them when they go," Wurst said. "I'll order pizza a lot."

His mother chuckled, pointing out that even before the accident he wasn't much of a cook - peanut butter and bread from Wawa constituted his food preparation repertoire. Barbara has stocked his freezer and pantry, and his sister, Michele, who lives 10 minutes away, has promised to invite him over frequently.

Wurst will rely on worker's compensation and pension payments for now. He passes time working on his pristine 1999 Corvette and playing Wii games. He watches movies - James Bond films are a favorite - and surfs the Internet. He hangs out with friends, including some from the force.

And he spends time with his girlfriend, Teri Wood, whom he met at Magee Rehabilitation Center. Wood, 24, lives in West Deptford. In August 2007, she was injured in an accident on I-295 when her car was struck by a tractor-trailer. She was in a coma for months and still uses a wheelchair most of the time.

Dating has been tough.

"He wants to take his girlfriend on a date without his mom tagging along," Barbara Wurst said, laughing. "We love Teri - she's a very determined girl, and she's getting so much better."

Gary Wurst's memory comes and goes. He remembers nothing about the accident and may forget who visited him a half-hour ago, but his memories of events from the long-ago past are razor sharp.

"It's hit or miss," Barbara said. "He needs clues to remember things. I told him, 'You have to start writing things down. If someone tells you they're taking you to dinner on Friday, write it down.' "

Though the accident anniversary will be hard, Barbara Wurst said she is trying to use it as a way to remember the good things she has.

Her son's recovery is "a miracle," she said. "We've been absolutely blessed."

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com