(Facebook/Eric J. Schmitt-Matzen)

A terminally ill 5-year-old boy who was afraid he would miss Christmas got his last wish and saw Santa one more time, right before he died in Santa’s arms.

Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a Santa Claus in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s a very good Santa. His wife plays Mrs. Claus, his cellphone rings “Jingle Bells,” and he plays Santa at around 80 different jobs every year. According to the News Sentinel’s Sam Venable, Schmitt-Matzen is so committed to the Santa role that he even wears embroidered Santa suspenders with his regular clothes.

The suspenders are why he was ready to go just over a month and a half ago, when most of the world was still feeling Halloween, and Schmitt-Matzen got a call from a nurse at a hospital who said there was a little boy who was dying and needed to see Santa right away.

Schmitt-Matzen has been Santa at hospitals before, and of course he was willing to come right away. He said he’d get his suit on and be right there, but the nurse said there wasn’t time for the suit, just to come as he was.

He didn’t need the suit. He had his suspenders on, but honestly, Schmitt-Matzen would look like Santa in a Hawaiian shirt. He’s six feet tall, heavyset, and has a long white hair and beard and a curling mustache. He even has the rosy cheeks. So when he walked in wearing his red suspenders, the little boy knew right away that he was Santa.

The boy had been upset because he knew he was dying, and he was afraid he’d miss Christmas. Schmitt-Matzen went in with a “Ho Ho Ho” and told the boy that there was no way he could miss Christmas, because he’s Santa’s number-one elf.

Schmitt-Matzen went in by himself, because he said that anybody who was going to cry should stay outside the room, because he had a very tenuous grip on not crying, and a tear from someone else would set him off, and the little boy did not want to see a crying Santa. He gave the boy a present that the boy’s mother had bought and wrapped for him–a Paw Patrol toy that he wanted.

The boy wanted to know where he was going when he died, and Schmitt-Matzen told them that when he gets there, to say that he was Santa’s number one elf, and they’d take care of him.

The boy managed to get up and give Santa a big hug. And then he died, while Schmitt-Matzen was holding him.

The boy’s parents realized what happened and came running in, and Schmitt-Matzen gave them back their son and left as quickly as possible.

This is a difficult story to even read, let alone to live through. Poor Schmitt-Matzen said he could hardly get home because he was crying too hard to drive. For a while, he thought he’d have to stop being Santa. He didn’t think he could take it.

Schmitt-Matzen is a veteran and a former Army Ranger, but says this is the hardest thing he’s ever seen. In the end, he did decide to go back to being Santa. He saw other children playing and laughing, and decided that he had to keep going on as Santa, “For them, and for me.”