A boy’s super hero action figure comes to life
This was the biggest car four-year-old Mathis Shroyer had ever seen. Big enough to hold his mommy and daddy and his two big brothers and his grandparents and more! He sat in the very back with his mom and pushed all the interesting-looking buttons. His mom took lots of selfies, then they looked out the windows at the sparkling Christmas lights. Suddenly Mathis saw his name. In giant letters. Up on a building.
“Is that my name?” he asked his mom. She nodded and patted her eyes with a tissue. Then they all piled out and he took his dad’s hand as they walked down a hallway fully decorated with superhero posters. Mathis told his mom and dad the name of each hero. Spiderman was his favorite. Mathis loved Spidey’s webs, the daring acrobatics, and the amazing flying.
You wouldn’t know to look at this excited, beautiful, blond- haired, blue-eyed little boy that he was battling a life-threatening brain cancer. But his parents were all too aware how precious every moment with him was.
His first-year annual check-up had changed their lives. The pediatrician measured his head circumference, then measured again. The numbers were off: the head too large. He sent them over to Children’s Mercy Hospital for a CT scan, which revealed a golfball-sized tumor at the base of his skull.
Janiene and Gerald were in shock. In a single day, their son went from their shining baby boy to a patient with a serious disease. The hospital instantly admitted him and performed brain surgery the next day.
The surgery was successful and Gerald and Janiene breathed a sigh of relief. Every three months, Mathis had a brain scan, and for more than a year, everything looked normal.
“Mathis was growing, meeting his milestones, happy and healthy,” Gerald said. The family was starting to relax.
Then, a tumor appeared, right next to the original one. Mathis went through another surgery and chemotherapy and bounced right back. But the scans showed another tumor and another, the hospital team searched for answers, including an experimental drug, radiation, and more chemotherapy. Through it all, Mathis remained happy and compliant, taking the challenges in his stride. He looked forward to playing with the hospital’s toys during his chemotherapy sessions.
“He just wanted to have fun and play,” Gerald says.
Even though the tumors persisted, growing aggressively, Mathis was not in pain. He loved life and was remarkably resilient. And now, The Elves of Christmas Present were about to make one of his biggest dreams come true.
Imagine being four-years-old, stepping out of an elevator, walking around a corner, and suddenly seeing Santa, sitting on his special throne, surrounded on both sides by mountains of colorfully-wrapped presents. Brightly lit Christmas trees lined the path to Santa. Elves were scurrying around, working on projects, and checking their “Naughty and Nice” lists.
When Mathis saw Santa, he was stunned. What was Santa doing here, right here, in his own city? He stood next to his mom, not sure what to do next. One by one, Santa called up the brothers, the oldest one first. The family settled onto nearby comfortable sofas and listened as Santa asked each child questions tailored to them. Somehow Santa knew their best friends’ names, their favorite sports, and their school activities. When it was Mathis’s turn, he marched right up to Santa’s throne, brave as all get out, then snuggled into the great Claus’s lap, like he’d known him forever.
After a conversation about his friends and the movies he liked, Santa said to Mathis, “I understand you are a big fan of Spider Man. The elves have created something very special for you.”
Mathis’s eyes got big as an elf brought over a Spider Man action figure. As Mathis reverently clasped the toy, Santa said, “This has elf-magic in it. Let’s see how it works.”
Santa led Mathis and his family over to a big magic box the elves had built. It looked like a giant telephone booth on wheels and had a curtain covering the front. Following Santa’s instructions, Mathis put his Spider Man on the floor inside the box. The elves spun the box in a circle. Then Mathis and Santa closed the curtain and everyone repeated the magic words: “Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho.” Suddenly, lights flashed and the box shook. Mathis reached for his mom’s hand.
When the box was still again, Santa and Mathis opened the curtain. Mathis and his brothers jumped back as a real live Spider Man stepped out!
Mathis bounced up and down as he and his brothers talked to Spider Man.Mathis had recently seen the latest Spider Man movie. But seeing his favorite superhero, right in front of him, in person, was ultra exciting. Spider Man asked Mathis, “Do you want to be a superhero?”
Mathis shook his head.
“That’s OK. Everyone is a hero in his own way.”
Mathis couldn’t believe it when more action heroes showed up, including Wolverine, Mrs. Incredible, and the Hulk. But he was most enamored with Spider Man.
Soon Spider Man said, “I’ve got to get back and fight more crime.” Before he went, he knelt in front of Mathis and asked, “What do you want for Christmas?”
Mathis grinned widely and shouted. “You!” He gave Spider Man a huge hug.
Spider Man returned to the big magic box and Santa and the boys did the magic in reverse. After the lights blazed and the box shimmied, Santa opened the curtain. There was Mathis’s action figure, just waiting for him.
As he handed the action figure to Mathis, Santa told him, “Remember, Spider Man will always be with you, whenever you need him. He is one of the good guys and heroes like you and Spider Man always stick together.”
Mathis beamed and held the figure tight. Just as he had known, Santa was real. Spider Man was real. His heroes had come to life, stood right in front of him, talked to him, laughed with him, and hugged him. They, and their magic, were definitely real. Even after he fell asleep, leaning against his mom’s shoulder, he held onto the figure.
Mathis’ family held tight to the love, excitement, and caring of that Christmas Eve.
“For Mathis, seeing the superheroes up close was magical and amazing. He experienced the magic of Christmas to the fullest,” Gerald says. “For Janiene and me and our family, it was humbling and overwhelming to be the recipient of that much generosity. This gift is something we will never forget.
Mathis’s tumors kept coming, growing aggressively. Finally, the treatment team said the words no parent wants to hear: “There is nothing more we can do.” They called in hospice and both parents took off work to spend the final days with Mathis.
“We lived every minute we could with him,” Gerald says. ‘Every day, we went to Target, Mathis’s favorite store. Mathis loved buying new toys.”
Mathis died that February, at home, cradled by his parents. This courageous child embodied love and happiness and heroism. Though he adored his superhero, he was the real hero, with his beauty, his resilience, his joy, and his ability to throw himself into life, despite all its challenges.
“Mathis never let anything stop him,” Janiene says. “He knew how to find the joy in everything and have fun, regardless of obstacles.”
At Mathis’ memorial service, the chaplain held onto the Spider Man action figure and said, “Now it’s time for all of you to put on your capes and be a hero like Mathis. Be a hero in your own community and in your own life.”