Twenty-year-old Bayleigh Eblin-Lowe had the perfect wedding planned, except for one missing piece. Her father, who died nine years ago from a brain aneurysm, would not be there.
"It was the only thing Bayleigh was a little tender about. She didn't want anybody to walk her down the aisle," said her mother, Kelley Eblin, who had divorced Mark Eblin amicably a year before his death.
But in April the family learned that Mr. Eblin would be at the ceremony, at least symbolically. Terry Mayo, a 59-year-old retired mechanic from Ashland City, Tenn., received Mr. Eblin's heart in a 2001 transplant operation and was coming to Bayleigh's wedding.
Mr. Mayo, a father of three, said he was overwhelmed with emotion when he received Bayleigh's wedding announcement in the mail last year. The Eblins hadn't expected that he'd want to attend a wedding hours away, but Mr. Mayo called the family a few weeks before the ceremony at Lupton Drive Baptist Church and asked to attend.
Somehow, two young girls he'd never met -- Bayleigh and her 16-year-old sister, Allison -- felt like kin to him, he said.
"They might not be blood relatives, but they feel just as close as a blood relative. I feel toward those two girls as though they were mine," he said. "I cried when all three of my children got married, and I cried when she come walking down that aisle, too."
Mr. Eblin, who had been a truck driver for Covenant Transport, died at age 41 on Feb. 4, 2001. Before his death, he and his daughters were inseparable. Every Sunday he and Mrs. Eblin-Lowe watched NASCAR races together, Mrs. Eblin recalled.
Mrs. Eblin-Lowe, a rising junior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, even scheduled her wedding ceremony at 3 p.m. in honor of her dad's favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt -- No. 3.
"I so bad wanted my Daddy to be right beside me, telling me how beautiful I was, as he often did, and trying to calm my nerves before I walked down the aisle," wrote Mrs. Eblin-Lowe last week in an e-mail from her honeymoon in Jamaica. "Even though my dad couldn't be there, God gave me the next best thing ... his heart."
When Mr. Eblin died, he was not a registered donor, leaving the decision up to his family about whether his organs should be used to save other lives. But the family decided quickly he would have wanted to donate, Mrs. Eblin said.
Doctors transplanted Mr. Eblin's liver, two kidneys and his heart in four different people.
DAY OF THE TRANSPLANT
After two major heart attacks in his 40s, Mr. Mayo's heart was left irreparably damaged. He was put on the transplant list in 2000, 13 months before Mr. Eblin died.
At 5 a.m. that Sunday in 2001, Mr. Mayo was asleep at his home when he got the call that the hospital had a match. A heart was on the way from Chattanooga.
It was the third time Mr. Mayo had received such a call; the first two hearts ended up being too small. He tried to contain his hope on the drive to the hospital in Nashville, 22 miles away.
"It was still exciting when you get that call," he said. "You keep it in your mind at all times that somebody is going to have to die in order for me to live. It's a hard thing. Later on, you get the joy of knowing you're going to live because of that very special gift that someone else has given you."
In the weeks after his transplant, he penned two letters to the Eblin family. Both he tucked away without ever mailing them. He would write two more over the next few years, each time deciding against sending them.
"I was on the receiving end, the happy side. His family was on the loss side. You don't want to hurt no one," he said.
One person can help more than 50 people through organ and tissue donation.
TO BECOME AN ORGAN DONOR
* 2,307 Tennesseans need a transplant
* More than 106,000 Americans need a transplant
* 122 Tennesseans need a heart
Source: Tennessee Donor Services as of May 1
But when the Eblin family made contact through a letter in 2008, he was ecstatic. The families kept in touch through letters and phone calls up until Bayleigh's wedding.
The two families met for the first time at the rehearsal dinner last week.
"Him and my dad had a lot of similarities," Mrs. Eblin-Lowe wrote. "He just kept telling that I was part of his family and that I was welcome at his home any time."
To recognize both Mr. Mayo and her father at her May 8 wedding, Mrs. Eblin-Lowe stopped at Mr. Mayo's seat during her walk down the aisle and gave him a rose.
When they danced to the song "Unforgettable," during the reception, he talked to her the whole time, "just as my Daddy would have," she recalled.
Mrs. Eblin said the presence of Mr. Mayo and his wife at the wedding was a "blessing."
"We felt like we'd always known him, like he'd been a family friend," she said. "You can't get a better wedding gift than that."