A 60-year-old Tennessee man who spends time volunteering as Santa Claus at a local hospital granted a 5-year-old terminally ill boy his final wish this holiday season, and held him as he died in his arms.
“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of [stuff],” Eric Schmitt-Matzen told USA Today. “But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.”
Schmitt-Matzen, a mechanical engineer and president of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro, Tennessee, had arrived at the unidentified hospital and met the boy’s mother and family members, who were also unidentified. A nurse had called with the special request and given him a toy to offer the child during his visit, USA Today reported.
“When I walked in, he was laying there so weak, it looked like he was ready to fall asleep,” Schmitt-Matzen told the news outlet. “I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re going to miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! You’re my No. 1 elf!’”
“He looked up and said, ‘I am?’ I said ‘Sure.’”
Schmitt-Matzen told USA Today that he watched him open the present and smile before he lay back down.
“’They say I’m going to die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’ I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’ He said ‘Sure!’ ‘When you get there, you tell them you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf and I know they’ll let you in.’ He said, ‘They will?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
“He kind of sat up, and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa can you help me?’ I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him,” Schmitt-Matzen told USA Today.
The boy’s death left Schmitt-Matzen questioning whether he could continue donning the signature white beard and red suit, but he returned for other sick children and saw the effect it had on them.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me,” he told USA Today.