The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I cried all the way home’: Terminally ill 5-year-old dies in Santa’s arms

Editor’s note: This story was based on a column in the Knoxville News Sentinel. The News Sentinel no longer stands by it. As a result The Washington Post no longer stands by this story. 

“Since publication,” the paper said, “the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify” the account provided by Eric Schmitt-Matzen, the Santa who told the story. “This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.”

For more, see this Post story. 

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Those famous words, a response to an 8-year-old’s anxious note, appeared in the New York Sun in 1897, but they express a noble truth today.

This Santa’s suit and his cheeks are red, his beard snowy white. He was born on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas’s Day. At 310 pounds and 6-feet tall with, as he put it to the Knoxville News Sentinel, “just enough of a lap for the kids to sit on,” his stature fits the part.

His name is Eric Schmitt-Matzen, and he’s portrayed Santa for years when not working his other job as president of Packing Seals and Engineering in Jacksboro, Tenn. This week he opened up to several news outlets about an event that happened in November that had him tell the Knoxville News Sentinel, “I’m just not cut out for this.”

A few weeks ago, his cellphone began dinging out the melody to “Jingle Bells,” so he picked it up. It was a request for him to hear the wishes of a 5-year-old.

Only, this 5-year-old was in the ICU and didn’t have much time left — Schmitt-Matzen didn’t even have time to put on his full suit, only his Santa-laden suspenders.

“I’d just gotten home from work that day,” Schmitt-Matzen told the Knoxville New Sentinel. “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.”

He rushed to the hospital, where he met several of the boy’s relatives, including his mother. She had purchased a toy from television’s “Paw Patrol” and asked him to give it to the boy, as Santa, of course.

“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 said.

He walked into the ICU and found the boy “laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep.”

“You know, kids look at things completely different,” Schmitt-Matzen recalled to WBIR in a video. “He was more concerned with missing Christmas than he was of dying.”

“When I got there, my job was to make sure he got Christmas, and that’s got to be happy, and it’s got to be a fun time,” Schmitt-Matzen continued. Though weeks had passed, in the video his eyes were red as peppermints. He paused to remove his small gold-rimmed glasses and wiped tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.

He continued, saying he looked at the boy and “started with that jolly voice.”

“What’s this I hear you’re gonna be missing Christmas this year?” he asked the boy.

“They tell me I’m dying,” he responded.

“Really?” Schmitt-Matzen asked. “Well, you’re not going to miss Christmas. The elves already had your present made. We knew you wanted this for a long period, for a long time.”

The boy could “barely unwrap it,” so Schmitt-Matzen helped. When he saw the toy, he smiled.

Then, Schmitt-Matzen told CNN, “he just kind of put his hands down and laid back into the pillow and looked at me. He said, ‘They say I’m dying.’”

Schmitt-Matzen asked the boy to do him a favor.

“When you get to those pearly gates, you just tell them you’re Santa’s number one elf. I guarantee you, it’ll open the gates for you.”

The boy smiled and said, “I am?”

Then, Schmitt-Matzen told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’”

Schmitt-Matzen wrapped him in a warm, tight embrace.

“Before I could say anything, he died right there,” he said. “I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.”

Added Schmitt-Matzen, “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.”

He was supposed to visit his grandchildren in Nashville the next day, but he was beside himself from the moment he left the hospital for nearly two weeks.

“I cried all the way home,” Schmitt-Matzen, who served in the Army with the 75th Rangers for four years, told the newspaper. “I was crying so hard, I had a tough time seeing good enough to drive.”

He said he thought about quitting after that, but after putting on his suit one more time, “I saw all those children laughing, [and] it brought me back into the fold. It made me realize the role I have to play.”

So, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.