Tears had already started running down the silver grey beard of Father Christmas when he answered: “Do me a big favour. When you get there, you tell them you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.”
“They will,” the five-year-old boy answered.
“Sure!” Father Christmas replied. The little boy sat straight up with his last energy and gave his hero a big hug. But he had one more question: “Santa, can you help me?” But that was the brave fighter’s last words.
“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.” Father Christmas said that when everyone outside the room realised what had happened his mother ran into the room screaming.
“I handed her son back and left as fast as I could,” says the 60-year-old Eric Schmitt-Matzen from Caryville in Tennessee who was recently called to dress up as Santa for a young fan who was terminally ill in hospital.
Eric has been playing the role of Santa for almost a decade and dons the red suit and boots roughly 80 times during the festive season.
But his visit to this dying boy was one he’ll never forget. Details of the child are being withheld to protect the privacy of the family in their time of grieving.
“I spent four years in the Army”, says Eric, a mechanical engineer who in his normal life is the head of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro in Texas, told the media afterwards.
“As a soldier I’ve seen a lot, but that day I bawled my eyes out as I ran past the nurse’s station. I know that doctors and nurses see and experience things like that every day but I don’t know how they do it.”
He added that he cried as he drove home and could barely see where he was going.
“My wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself,” he said. His wife, Sharon (58), usually performs alongside him as Mother Christmas.
She was relieved that she wasn’t with him this time, because they’d both have been traumatised. “He was down for three days,” Sharon said.
He was born for the role of Father Christmas: 1,8-m tall and weighing 141 kilogram, says Eric. “Just enough of a lap for the kids to sit on,” he adds.
His impressive snow-white beard and curly moustache is real and he says that he spends all year growing it to get it looking just right. He’s even won first prize in a national competition for the best natural full beard and styled moustache. Even his cellphone ring tone is Jingle Bells - all year round, not just at Christmas.
But nothing could prepare him for that call.
“The telephone rang. It was a nurse I know who works at the hospital. She said there’s a sick boy who really wants to see Santa”. And there was no time for him to dress up. “Your Santa suspenders are good enough,” she then said. “Come right now.”
Within 15 minutes he was at the hospital.
He met the boy’s mother and relatives. She bought her son a toy from popular TV show, Paw Patrol, wrapped it and gave it to Eric to hand to her son in his bed in ICU.
Eric says that he went in alone while everyone watched them, emotional and in tears, through the window.
“He was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep,” said Eric. “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. You are my Number One elf.”
The little boy looked up at Eric’s perfect Father Christmas beard and asked: “I am?”
When he handed over the gift the little boy’s hands were so weak that he struggled to tear away the wrapping paper, but when he saw what was inside he smiled a huge smile, until he passed away only minutes later.
It’s going to take him weeks to not think about it all the time, says Eric. He even considered packing away his Santa suit for good. But then he reminded himself of what it was that made him start wearing the suit in the first place.
“When I saw all those children laughing, it brought me back into the fold,” he said. “It made me realise the role I have to play.”