The captain was in charge until the end

Published 11:15 pm Saturday, May 12, 2012

He’ll always be the captain.

It’s been nine years since Tommy Hazleton guided the 30-foot Matou, French for Tomcat, across the Gulf of Mexico in a hunt for trout. The first such adventure for this former Yankee — and one still talked about.

He’s always been the captain with his deep, authoritative voice that screams respect. Only now, cancer is ripping the physical life from him.

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The voice still carries the commanding depth of tone, but the body is fleeting. His powerful arms are reduced to limbs. He needs help getting in and out of a chair. His independent mind — the part in the morning that tells him he can use the bathroom by himself — crumbles when the disease knocks him to the floor.

“It’s like seeing Superman holding Kryptonite,” his son, my best friend, said.

The captain’s story is not unlike so many others. Most people have been affected by cancer in some degree or another. Many know people who have overcome the disease, others know people who will be unable to lick it and many have dealt with cancer’s fatal effects.

Last Sunday, it was clear that he was losing the mental toughness needed to rage battle against the physical debilitation.

The depth of his suffering never hits me until it’s time for his nap. It takes two large men to get him off the couch. Sliding him into a wheelchair, taking him to bed and getting his legs under covers is brutal — for those carrying him. I cannot fathom what was going through the captain’s mind.

I didn’t want to.

In his den are trophies of a man born to the outdoors. Two lions, a cobra, moose heads and rugs made of bear skin fill the walls and floors. Elephant hooves are used as planters. Photos show off an ocean’s worth of fish, many snagged off the Matou. The outdoors was his playground.

How brutal a daily reminder it must be to see tangible memories of what was — and the reality of what is.

The visit passes too quickly.

He wakes from a nap before I leave for the three-hour ride north from Baton Rouge. I tell him I will see him again soon. “In this life,” he says back to me.

“I can only hope so,” I said.

I turn to go, but I can’t. I grab his hand once again, tell the captain — he always will be the captain — I love him, and weep my way out the door.

He died Wednesday holding the hand of his wife of 51 years.

Bastard disease.