By now the word "optimistic" has pretty much vanished from Gary Cooper's vocabulary.

Yes, he will say, he feels pretty good. And yes, it was good to get home last month to his wife and two kids in Manassas Park.

But ask if he is optimistic about being home for long, and Cooper will reply: "Until something comes up -- like it has every month."

For the last seven years, Cooper's life has been a series of hospital stays brought about by a hereditary intestinal disease called Gardner's Syndrome, which has been diagnosed in only 500 other Americans.

In those seven years, Cooper, a 36-year-old electronics engineer, has undergone 32 operations for Gardner's Syndrome and other illnesses. He has spent only six months at home; most of the time he is at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, 100 miles from Manassas Park. His latest release, on July 12, followed a two-week stay for blood tests.

Meanwhile, the prognosis for Cooper is not encouraging.

The Gardner's Syndrome -- precancerous growths that block Cooper's intestimes -- has been more or less arrested. But the disease and the many operations have created other problems.

Cooper has developed a blood disorder, leaving weakened arteries that could rupture and cause internal hemorrhaging.

He can be fed only intravenously because his body cannot absorb or eliminate foods with natural bulk, and must spend 13 hours every day attached to IV machine.

The constant tension of hospitalization and worries about his family have left him with stomach ulcers.

He is so weak that doctors fear he could not overcome any infection, even a cold. Because his body is so weak, he can stay awake for no more than six hours at a time, and even then his stamina is limited.

"I might be able to walk around the house once," he says, "but that's about as far as I'd want to try."

The bottom line: "I don't expect Gary to live beyond the end of the year," says his wife, Carla, 33.

But, most devastating of all, Gary's disease is hereditary.

His father died of it, as did three cousins and an uncle. An aunt has had it. Earlier this year, the Cooper's daughter, Linda, 9 was found to have the disease, and her large intestine was removed. Meanwhile, Jimmy Cooper, 11, has been diagnosed as having a "very, very minute case" of Gardner's Syndrome.

These waves of misfortune have not washed over a wealthy family. Gary Cooper has not worked since 1976, and Carla Cooper earns only $6,200 a year, as manager of the Prince William Education Association Federal Credit Union.

The family gets $800 a month in state disability benefits, but as Gary Cooper points out, "That isn't much when it costs $6,000 a month just to feed me with IVs, and when I'm facing maybe $100,000 in medical bills (that aren't covered by insurance)."

"To say that this family has been under an incredible strain would be a great understatement," said their minister, the Rev. Kenneth Ayers, associate pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Manassas.

Ayers, members of his congregation and the Coopers' friends and neighbors have pulled together over the years to provide the beleaguered family with the sort of old-fashioned community support that many might have thought was extinct.

Said a friend of the Coopers, who has given time and helped raise money for them: "I've never seen a family need it more or a group of people come through better."

Donations to the Coopers have totaled more than $50,000 since 1976. Gifts have ranged from $1,000 the Manassas Moose Club raised in a street-corner bucket brigade one Christmas to $5,000 donated by local Century 21 real estate agents.

Meanwhile, a local news broadcast on the family last year brought $26,000, and a similar story in a Manassas newspaper two years earlier produced $12,000.

But it has been the gifts of time and services from the Manassas Park community that have touched the Coopers most.

Every week, Gerry Robertson, a neighbor, delivers a trunkful of the glucose solution for Gary's intravenous feedings from Fairfax Hospital, where she works, the Coopers' bungalow. "It saves us at least $10 a week in gas," says Gary Cooper.

Last spring, unannounced, six parishioners from Emannuel Baptist came to the Coopers' home and repainted it from top to bottom.

That was just a few months after another crew had come to enclose the back porch.

There had been a still earlier crew -- four parishioners who tuned up Carla Cooper's car without her knowledge and at their expense, so she could be sure of getting home on Sunday nights from her husband's bedside in Richmond. s

Asked why he gave his time and labor, one of the mechanics, who insisted on anonymity, replied: "It's like Mount Everest. It was there. The need was there."

Last winter, Nathan Posey, a Manassas plumber, was called in to fix some pipes at the Coopers'. "He would never send us a bill," Gary Cooper said.

Neither has Clarence Leggett, a Prince William County teacher and vice president of the credit union where Carla Cooper works.

One recent sweltering evening, his shirtsleeves pushed well back, Leggett was finishing some odd repairs in the Coopers' downstairs bathroom.

"After what this family's been through," he said, "it's the least I can do."

Still, says Carla Cooper, throughout her seven years of anguish, "the guiding spirit has been Ken."

Ken Ayers has a blond pompadour, a pair of piercing blue eyes -- "and a belief in myself as an extension of God, a reminder to Carla that she isn't alone."

To Carla Cooper, Ayers has been social worker, part-time babysitter, older brother and frequent co-pilot on the Richmond-Manassas shuttle.

Both Carla Cooper and Ayers have lost track of the number of trips they have made to Gary Cooper's room in Richmond. But several were made in the middle of the night, after emergency calls from hospital personnel.

"Have I woken Ken up?" asks Carla Cooper, repeating a visitor's question. "I can't even remember how many times."

"I can't remember either," said Ayers, whose first wife died of cancer. "All the times are kind of woven together in a concert of sadness."

To Ayers, or any minister, dealing with impending death and family tragedy is part of the job. At first, he says he saw the Coopers' situation as "routine."

But when Gary Cooper "hung on so tenaciously for so many years," and when he learned that the disease was hereditary, "I suddenly saw the seriousness of it."

His involvement has since become "as intense as anything I can ever remember in my ministry."

"There are different challenges for different members of the family," said Ayers. "I think I have intersected Gary at his point of hurt, at least a few times, and I think I've helped Carla cope.

"But I'm worried about the children. Jimmy is severely emotionally upset, and Linda is retarded (the retardation is not related to Gardner's Syndrome). And they both have the disease. So (Carla) might have to go through all this again -- and again."

If so, Ayers expects the Emmanuel congregation will be there to help.

The church has about 1,000 active members, and they mirror eastern Prince William County very well. Most are in their 30s and 40s, most have families, most have lived in the area for at least five years and most hold solidly middle-class jobs -- as military officers, builders, mailmen, computer technicians.

But according to several parishioners, the strongest thread running through the congregation is a desire to help those in need who are active in the community.

Carla Cooper is certainly that. She is acting president of the Manassas Park school board and has held several church offices.

"I haven't gotten involved to look for favors," Carla Cooper said, "but I think our situation is well-known around the community because I am."

The Coopers have had many hours to discuss their problems, and the one thing they would have done differently would have been to undergo genetic testing for the presence of Garner's Syndrome.

"I always had a feeling I might get it and my children might, especially because of my dad," says Gary Cooper. "But I didn't have a checkup until I was 29."

Why not?

"I just didn't get around to it," he said.

"Like all young couples, we thought it couldn't happen to us," his wife added.

Carla Cooper's emotional stability has ranged from good to invisible during the last seen years.

At one time, early in Gary's illnes, "I would sneak out of church during the benediction just so no one would ask me how he was.

"(Now) I can live with the idea of Gary's death. I can talk with you about it.

"But I'm still not that stable. I don't think widowhood bothers me as much as the thought of raising two children by myself."

To Ken Ayers, "We at the church have been able to keep them in our minds and our hearts. That's been our tangible way of saying 'We love you.'"

To Gary Cooper, "All I can figure is that God wouldn't have done this if there wasn't a reason.

"I'm hopeful of living a while, but I don't know how long. I won't make any guesses on that.

"I'm hopeful," he repeats, "but I'm not as hopeful as I used to be."