Old St. Nick was on call when a terminally ill little boy asked to see him one last time.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a mechanical engineer by trade. But every Christmas season for the last nine years, he's dressed up as Santa Claus to spread holiday cheer around Knoxville.
A few weeks ago, he had just returned home from his day job when he received a phone call from a nurse at a nearby hospital—a very sick 5-year-old boy there was requesting to see Kris Kringle.
I told her, 'OK, just let me change into my outfit,'" Schmitt-Matzen told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "She said, 'There isn't time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.'"
Santa arrived at the ICU just 15 minutes later. "When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep," Schmitt-Matzen said. "I sat down on his bed and asked, '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 looked up and said, 'I am?' Schmitt-Matzen continued. Then he asked Santa a very big question. "They say I'm gonna die," he began "How can I tell when I get to where I'm going?"
"When you get there," Schmiitt-Matzen told him, "You tell 'em you're Santa's Number One elf and I know they'll let you in."
A few moments later, the little boy asked Santa for a hug and died right there in his arms.
"I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers and I've seen my share of [stuff]," Schmitt-Matzen told USA Today. "But I ran by the nurses' station bawling my head off."
It's a story that's both touching and heartbreaking, and in fact, the 60-year-old Santa was so distraught afterwards that he considered retiring his suit for good before changing his mind after participating in one more Christmas show.
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"When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold," Schmitt-Matzen said. "It made me realize the role I have to play. For them and for me."
Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.