This year, veteran Santa Claus portrayer Eric Schmitt-Matzen was the one with tears in his eyes as he helped one special little boy in his final moments of life.
Schmitt-Matzen, who portrays the jolly man in the red suit every year for dozens of events, recently answered the call to visit a terminally ill child in the hospital just before his death, he told the Knoxville News Sentinel.
“[A local nurse] said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus,” the 60-year-old told the Sentinel about the request to visit the boy at a nearby hospital. “I told her, ‘Okay, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’ ”
Upon arrival just 15 minutes later, the little boy’s mother gave Schmitt-Matzen a gift 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 explained to the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Schmitt-Matzen entered the hospital’s intensive care unit, and sat down on the boy’s bed, asking, ” ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!’ ”
“I gave him the present,” Schmitt-Matzen said. “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.”
Then, the child asked, ” ‘They say I’m gonna die. How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’ ”
In response, Schmitt-Matzen told the child, ” ‘When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.’ ”
The two shared a hug, and the little boy asked, ” ‘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 explained. “Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.”
The devastating moment shook Schmitt-Matzen, he admitted.
“I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen told the newspaper. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.” He added, “Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”
Though, one more show helped him realize the importance of bringing joy to children.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play,” Schmitt-Matzen said. “For them and for me.”