Ten years after Jeni Stepien’s father was murdered, she walked down the aisle with the man who received her father’s donated heart. While it’s heartbreaking in many ways that her biological dad couldn’t see her get married, it’s also a story of the unexpected connections we make in the wake of grief.
In September 2006, Jeni’s father, then-53-year-old Michael Stepien, was walking home from his job as head chef at a restaurant when he was robbed at gunpoint by a 16-year-old, who ended up shooting him in the head. Upon his death, the family decided to donate his organs. Mr. Stepien’s heart went to Arthur Thomas, a father of four who lives in Lawrenceville, N.J. According to Ms. Stepien, Thomas had been within days of dying, as he had congestive heart failure.
As such, Thomas wrote a thank you note to the Stepiens–and ever since, Thomas has kept in touch with the family–particularly Jeni’s mom, Bernice. The families, however, didn’t meet in person until Jeni became engaged to her now-husband Paul. At Paul’s suggestion, Jeni asked Thomas to walk her down the aisle, as she stated in the Times:
“One of my first thoughts in that following week was, ‘Who will walk me down the aisle?’ I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, it would be so incredible to have a physical piece of my father there.’”
Naturally, Thomas said yes–but only after asking his own 30-year-old daughter, Jackie, who loved the idea. He said:
“I thought that would be the best way for her to feel close to her dad. That’s her father’s heart beating.”
The somewhat eerie factor–but also telling of how close to home this all is–is the fact that the murder and wedding took place within a close proximity. This made it even more imperative for Thomas to be part of the ceremony:
“The murder and the wedding happened within a three-block radius. And I was just thinking, ‘My dad is here with us, and this man is here with us because of us.’”
It’s no surprise that the ceremony went according to plan–both families plan to keep in touch, of course. Thomas explained just how important this gesture was for him:
“I felt wonderful about bringing her dad’s heart to Pittsburgh. If I had to, I would’ve walked.”
Watch the video of the bride walking down the aisle below: