With his bushy white beard, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes, Eric Schmitt-Matzen is known for putting smiles on children's faces as Santa Claus.
The Tennessee man has brought plenty of joy to kids over the years while working hundreds of events, but it was a heartbreaking encounter with a little boy earlier this month that has remained on his mind.
"I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen told the News Sentinel. "I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive."
Weeks ago, Schmitt-Matzen, 60, got a call from a friend who is a nurse at a local hospital saying a terminally ill 5-year-old boy wanted to meet Santa Claus, the newspaper reported.
After being told the boy didn't have much time left, Schmitt-Matzen rushed right over without putting on his full outfit.
After meeting the unnamed boy's family, he went into the intensive care unit alone to meet with him.
"'What's this, I hear you're going to be missing Christmas this year?'" Schmitt-Matzen recalled in an emotional sitdown with WBIR.
"They tell me I'm dying,'' the boy replied.
"Really, well you're not going to miss Christmas! The elves already have your present. We knew you wanted this for a long time."
Schmitt-Matzen then gave the boy a toy from the TV show PAW Patrol.
"I brought it up to him and he could barely unwrap it, so I helped,'' he said. "He saw the PAW Patrol and that put a grin on his face, and he kind of laid back on the pillow."
Schmitt-Matzen then did his best to comfort the boy. He broke down in tears as he recalled the moment.
"I said, 'Can you do me a favor?' Sure. When you get up to those pearly gates, just tell them you're Santa's number one elf."
"You sure are. I'm sure they'll let you right in."
"They'll just take you up and give you a big hug."
"He just kind of looked up at me and he says, 'Santa can you help me?''' Schmitt-Matzen said. "And that's when he passed."
Schmitt-Matzen then felt the boy go limp.
"I looked back to the window, and that's when the mother started yelling and screaming,'' he said. "They came running in, I handed them their son and I took off running, literally. (I was a) basket case for three days after that."
Schmitt-Matzen, who is a mechanical engineer when he's not playing Santa, thought about giving up his role as St. Nick after the boy's death.
But he decided to continue because of the joy it brings to so many children. According to the News Sentinel, he worked an event shortly after the boy's death.
"When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold,'' he said. "It made me realize the role I have to play."
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