Sixty-year-old Eric J. Schmitt-Matzen does about 80 Santa gigs each year, complete with a real white beard and authentic-looking suit, but a "gig" he got a few weeks ago left the normally jolly Santa in hysterical tears. Called by a local hospital to rush to the bedside of a terminally ill boy whose dying wish was to see Santa, Schmitt-Matzen realized how dire the situation was when the nurse told him he didn't have time to change into his suit, to just come quick.
Upon arrival at the hospital 15 minutes later, Schmitt-Matzen was introduced to the 5-year-old's family and his mother, who handed him a Paw Patrol toy for him to give to her son. "I sized up the situation and told everyone, 'If you think you're going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I'll break down and can't do my job,'" he told the Knoxville News Sentinel.
He entered the room alone.
"When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, 'Say, what's this I hear about you missing Christmas? There's no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you're my Number One elf!' He looked up and said, 'I am?' I said, 'Sure!'
I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down. 'They say I'm gonna 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? . . . When you get there, you tell 'em you're Santa's Number One elf, and I know they'll let you in.'
He kinda 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."
Once everyone outside the room caught wind of what had happened, they rushed back inside. Schmitt-Matzen recalls the boy's mother screaming, "No, no, not yet!" as he put the boy in her arms and left the room as quick as he could. "I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I've seen my share of (stuff)," he said. "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. . . . I cried all the way home. I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive."
After this heartbreaking encounter, Schmitt-Matzen was ready to quit being Santa for good. "My wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself. I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time. Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again."
Finally, he found it in him to do one more show for a group of kids. "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."