Candy Scarbrough retrieved the long-lost toy one day before what would have been her son's 14th birthday
Elmo Doll Missing for 10 Years Returns to Late Boy's Mom
Credit: Candy Scarbrough

A Tennessee mom has been reunited with her late son’s beloved Elmo toy more than 12 years after the stuffed animal went missing during a photo shoot.

Tucker Howard, who died in 2009 at age 3½, and his toy, which he lovingly called “Melmo,” were attached at the hip, his mom Candy Scarbrough tells PEOPLE.

When Tucker spent time in the hospital to undergo surgery on several heart defects, the Sesame Street character was right by his side, a special hand-me-down that had been passed along by his older sister.

“All my kids were Elmo kids, so yeah, he was pretty special to us,” Candy says, noting that after suffering a devastating stroke, one of the few things Tucker could respond to was his bright red Elmo.

Elmo Doll Missing for 10 Years Returns to Late Boy's Mom
Tucker Howard
| Credit: Candy Scarbrough

The pair even posed for a photo shoot together at a local J.C. Penney portrait studio in 2007, though things took a turn when Elmo was accidentally left behind.

“It was awful! [Elmo] was old and scruffy, so I couldn’t just go to the store and buy a new one,” Candy says. “I think I ultimately ended up finding one maybe on eBay to try and replace it. I called the studio and whoever answered said that they didn’t have it, so I just gave up on that.”

Candy, who says she shares photos remembering her son to Facebook several times per year, was reminded of that special photo shoot this summer, when she spotted a picture from it sitting in her mother’s wallet on a shopping trip.

Elmo Doll Missing for 10 Years Returns to Late Boy's Mom
Tucker Howard
| Credit: Candy Scarbrough

In the image, which Candy hadn’t seen in years, a smiling Tucker, then 2, happily poses with Elmo on a Sesame Street stoop.

She snapped a photo of the image and shared it to Facebook in July, writing, “There’s just something special about a boy and him’s ‘Melmo’ ♥️♥️♥️ Annnnnd also something horrid about the moment the boy loses him’s “Melmo” at said photo shoot.”

Though Candy didn’t think much of the post, the image proved extremely familiar for her friend Megan Flanagan, a former J.C. Penney portrait studio photographer who recognized Tucker’s furry friend instantly.

“Megan commented on it, she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I worked at J.C. Penney during that time,” Candy recalls. “And then it was probably a couple weeks later when she messaged me and said that she had basically found an Elmo when she worked at J.C. Penney’s, a child had left it behind and when she left Penney’s, they had let her take it with her, and she had used it in photo shoots through all these years to make other kids smile.”

When Flanagan said she felt it was time Elmo’s story came “full circle,” Candy happily agreed, and picked up her son’s long-lost toy from Flanagan’s porch.

“As soon as I got the bag, I had to open it right then, and I guess I was surprised by how the emotions did overwhelm me,” she says. “I just couldn’t help but smile. I guess it’s almost like a piece of my son was coming back to visit. I’ve said that it was almost like a message.”

Candy retrieved Tucker’s precious Elmo earlier this month, just one day before what would have been his 14th birthday.

“It just was a huge reminder, and I like to think maybe a message even, from Tucker, just saying, ‘Hey, this was part of my life,’” she says. “And help me to focus on his life and not his death.”

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Elmo has since made a happy homecoming at the Scarbrough house, taking a seat on a shelf filled with other toys that once belonged to Tucker, including a collection of Toy Story dolls.

Candy says that while she and her family are “thrilled” to have Elmo back, she’s just as happy knowing he spent his missing years making other children just as happy as he did Tucker.

“I’m just thankful that after all these years, that people still remember not just that I had a son that passed away, but they remember his life and that he can still bring a smile,” she says. “That’s pretty special.”