As professional Santa, Schmitt-Matzen has been trained in just about every scenario a Santa might encounter. His authentic beard, custom outfits, and jolly laugh have brought joy to thousands of children, but all of his training and clothing could never have prepared him for the most heartbreaking event of his professional life.
I’d just gotten home from work that day. The telephone rang. It was a nurse I know who works at the hospital. She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus.” Schmitt-Matzen said.
He told her that he would be right over, but that he needed to change into his Santa outfit. Her next words stopped him cold.
She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’ ”
Arriving only 15 minutes later, he was quickly introduced to the mother of the child and various family members. The boy’s mother handed him a present for “Santa” to give, and Schmitt-Matzen knew that it was serious.
I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job.’ ”
He entered the room and the boy’s family stayed outside, looking in through the window of the room in ICU.
“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. 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?’
I said, ‘Sure!’
I gave him the present. He was so weak he could barely open the wrapping paper. When he saw what was inside, he flashed a big smile and laid his head back down.”
‘They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
He said, ‘Sure!’
‘When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.’
He said, ‘They will?’
I said, ‘Sure!’
He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
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.
Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.
“I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers, and I’ve seen my share of (stuff). But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.’”
The event was so powerful, he almost gave up on being Santa.
I cried all the way home. I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive. My wife and I were scheduled to visit our grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but I told her to go by herself. I was a basket case for three days. It took me a week or two to stop thinking about it all the time. Actually, I thought I might crack up and never be able to play the part again.”
But he didn’t. Instead, as his story spread, he realized just how important playing Santa was for those children as a symbol of hope. As many people have stated in thousands of comments, the boy knew his family was just outside, and he knew that Santa cared enough about him to spend valuable time listening. The boy died knowing that he was loved, and that it was alright to move on because Santa told him that everything would be “okay.”
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