Chronically ill five-year-old dies in Santa's arms
With his snow-white beard, twinkling eyes, and jolly, round belly, it's easy to see why Eric Schmitt-Matzen from Knoxville, Tennessee could easily be mistaken for good 'ole St. Nick. And every year, a few weeks before Christmas, Eric pulls out his red and white costume and dives headfirst into the role of every child's favorite old guy: Santa Claus! Eric loves meeting the kids, hearing their Christmas wishes, and taking photos with them for the family album.
But one child will always stand out in his memory and for a very special reason.
A few weeks ago Eric received a call from a nurse at a local hospital. "She said there was a very sick five-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus. I told her, ‘OK, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’" recalled Eric. He arrived at he hospital 15 minutes later and when he walked into the room he had to stop for a moment and catch his breath — he couldn't believe how tiny and frail the boy in the bed was.
But Eric managed to compose himself and didn't break character for a second. He approached the young boy with a big smile: "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!" he asked in his deep-bellied Santa voice. The five-year-old used all his effort to raise his head and replied, "I am?" Then Eric gave him the present his mother had prepared and watched as he used every ounce of strength he had left to peel off the wrapping paper.
The boy was obviously exhausted, but he smiled and asked Eric: "They say I'm gonna die. How can I tell when I get where I'm going?" At this point Eric was fighting back the tears as he replied, "When you get there you tell 'em you're Santa's Number One Elf and I know they'll let you in." "They will?" asked the boy. "Sure!" said Eric as enthusiastically as he could.
The dying boy wrapped his tiny arms around the big man and asked on last question, "Santa, can you help me?" But before Eric could answer, the little boy passed away in his arms. "I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him," recalled Eric with a lump in his throat. "I cried all the way home. I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive."
Eric and his wife were planning to visit their grandchildren the next day but he was so distraught after what had happened at the hospital that he couldn't go. Eric was an emotional wreck for three days and it took weeks for him to get through a day without constantly thinking about his "Number One Elf."
Eric seriously considered hanging up his Santa costume and never playing the role again. But eventually he decided to try one more time and pulled on his suit for one more show. And how did it go? "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," said Eric.
The emotional toll of granting a boy his dying wish nearly drained away Eric's joy in doing something he loves. But fortunately he has found his way back to the role he was meant to play. And we're pretty sure there are lots of kids out there who are going to be very happy about that — his Number One Elf will make sure of that!