CASPER, Wyo. — They were teenagers. They weren’t ready to care for themselves, much less a child.
So she went to group home in Salt Lake. He finished high school.
They had a son they never saw, who went to a family they never knew, and all of the heartache, memories and trauma went in a box in a closet.
They couldn’t look inside. It was too painful. So they didn’t speak of him, their baby.
They married when they were barely 20. Finished college and had three daughters. They lived their lives.
For 47 years.
And then one day this summer, Kim and Walt Gasson bought a kit from one of those online ancestry sites. They spit in tubes in their home in Laramie, and checked a box asking if they wanted to find any DNA matches.
Somewhere in Utah, a man named Clark Jones filled out the same forms and checked the same box.
The results found a match between those teenagers and that baby.
So Clark wrote an email. And then he waited.
It was the summer of 1971, in southwest Wyoming. Walt and Kim knew they were in love, but they also knew they were young.
When Kim found out she was pregnant, having the baby just wasn’t an option.
“It was heart breaking,” Kim said. “But it was the right thing. The decision was made for us, not that there were a lot of alternatives in Green River, Wyoming, at that time.”
“And truthfully looking at it, we were 17 and 18,” Walt said. “We were singularly dumb.”
“Unprepared,” Kim corrected.
“Unprepared would be the diplomatic way to say it, to enter into parenthood.”
Kim’s mom shipped her to Latter-day Saints social services in Salt Lake City, which ran a group home for unwed mothers. It was a different time then. A time when teen pregnancies were hidden, shamed.
There she stayed for five months, working as a nanny and watching her belly slowly grow. Walt wrote her a letter each day keeping her updated on friends and life back home. Once a month his mom or aunt and uncle would drive him to Salt Lake to take her for dinner.
Sometime near her due date, staff brought her into a hospital room, induced her and put her under general anesthesia.
“I woke up and wasn’t pregnant, and I didn’t have a baby.”
She didn’t see him. She didn’t hold him. She didn’t hear his first cry.
“We didn’t know his weight,” Kim said.
“We knew the day he was born, and it was a boy. That was all,” Walt said.
“It left a hole in our hearts,” Kim added.
Walt and Kim enrolled in the University of Wyoming pursuing degrees in wildlife conservation and social work, respectively. They got married in 1973 after their freshman year.
Graduation followed, as did jobs in wildlife and parenting.
They had a daughter together, Jenny Hanrahan, then two years later another daughter, and four years after that another daughter.
They moved around from Pavillion to Gillette and Gillette to Cheyenne.
Constants remained in their lives: Summers at the Gasson family cabin on the west side of the Wind River Range; elk hunting in the fall; Christmas tree cutting the day after Thanksgiving.
And life went on, as life does.
When the girls were in their 20s, Kim and Walt decided to tell them about their brother.
“We thought, ‘This is something they need to know. It’s part of their history, and our history, and it was time,” Kim said.
But, the parents also cautioned, there was no way to find him.
“When we asked them if they wanted to try and find him, they said that they didn’t think it was possible. I wanted to honor that. For them it was a chapter of their lives that had closed, and we wanted to respect that,” said Beth Worthen, their middle daughter.
“Beth and I had plotted — there was some plotting — about trying to track down the hospital, trying to track down birth records,” said Sarah Bade, the youngest daughter. “And there was some resolution that that wasn’t our place to do, that was up to mom and dad.”
So they waited, and wondered.
“Secretly, I would look on social media where pictures would be posted of someone trying to find their birth family, or when I would go to Utah, I would secretly scan faces to see if anyone looked like me,” Beth said.
On Father’s Day this year, Kim saw a deal on a website called Ancestry.com, one of those companies that analyzes your DNA to show links to your past.
Maybe it would tell them more about their ancestors, they thought, or identify a distant cousin. They never considered anything else. They couldn’t. Just imagining the possibility, and the sheer unlikelihood, would be too painful.
Ten days after that little baby boy was born in Salt Lake, he was placed in the hands of Barbara Jones.
Barbara and her husband, J Stephen, were living in Georgia, where Stephen was finishing his doctorate in education. They had one biological daughter but couldn’t have more. They gave the baby a name, J Clark, and raised him as their own, adopting three more children over the next seven years.
The family eventually moved to Boise, Idaho, then Fruit Heights, Utah.
“We just lived like every other family,” Clark said. “My parents always raised me as their own biological son. There was never any distinction between you’re adopted or not adopted.”
He served on an LDS mission in Taiwan, then went to college in Weber State where he studied marketing. He met Jana, a girl from his neighborhood, and not long after, they married.
They had three sons, and life went on.
“The only time I thought about it was on my birthday, Jan. 28. It was the only day I wondered if someone else out there thought that day meant something to them like it meant to me.”
But even if he had wanted to find them, he didn’t know how to start.
Closed adoptions were the norm in the 1970s. They were established to prevent the birth family and child from reconnecting. It wasn’t part of the deal.
All Barbara had was a 3-by 5- inch index card that listed Clark’s weight, birth date and gender, along with his birth parent’s height and hair and eye color.
“I knew, because it was a closed adoption, to find anything about it I would end up in a basement someday, in a dark basement of a courthouse or adoption agency or something, trying to go over records, and I thought, ‘I have no motivation to do that.’ ”
“Every adopted kid that goes through a closed adoption that doesn’t know anything about their backstory has an idea that lands somewhere between two people hooked up at a truck stop and I’m an heir to a billion-dollar fortune. There is a backstory, but is it a backstory you want to know? I’ve always felt I wasn’t given up because I wasn’t wanted but because the timing wasn’t right for them to have kids. That’s how I always felt.”
But he kept seeing ads for companies that analyze DNA.
Maybe he would find some distant relative, he thought, or at least learn some of his heritage.
Early this summer, when he saw a sale on Ancestry.com, he bought a kit.
The initial results showed he had some potential matches as second and third cousins.
“That’s the first time I thought, ‘Holy cow these people share blood with me, DNA with me.”
A month later, he reopened the account to show a colleague how it worked. A notice flashed that it had found more matches.
He clicked on it.
Staring back at him was the sentence:
“Walt Gasson is your father.”
Sitting at a computer in his office, Clark wasn’t sure what to think. So he texted his wife.
They immediately started looking on Facebook. “Benign Facebook stalking,” they’ve come to call it.
Kim’s name hadn’t been in the Ancestry site, but it did have a link to a family tree. He saw that his birth parents were married.
He decided to write them an email through the site. A mild email. An unassuming email.
“I said, ‘I don’t even know how to ask this question, but I’m going to try to. I am adopted and Ancestry DNA seems to think we’re related, and it pegged you guys as my birth parents, and I wonder if there’s any validity to that.’
“I tried to keep it benign, but at the same time, you think, ‘Is this a chapter of their lives they want to keep closed and now you’ve opened it, or were they actively trying to find me? You don’t know what’s on the other side of that screen.”
And then he waited.
A week went by with no response.
He decided to send Walt a Facebook message.
“I said ‘If you get a chance to look at Ancestry, could you reply to that and get back to me, I would really appreciate it.”
Within 24 hours, he had a response.
Yes, there was a chance, Walt and Kim wrote, and they would be happy to answer any questions.
“We never checked our Ancestry email,” said Kim. “He waited a week, and I felt terrible him thinking, 'They don’t really care.' ”
“Kim, she identified some resources we could check about how you go about reuniting as a birth parent or child, how do you do it right and not mess it up,” Walt said. “We spent some time doing some research on how to go about this.”
They knew it was him. Beyond the striking similarities in resemblance: the wide, slightly tilted smile, the strong jaw line, the hazel eyes. And only a handful of people still alive knew the date and hospital where Clark was born.
Those early cautious emails snowballed into a flurry of emails, texts and video chats.
Clark learned about his new sisters and nine nieces and nephews. The Gassons learned about Clark’s wife and three sons.
Clark realized where his love for the outdoors — a foreign concept to his adopted family — may have originated. He explained that his adopted dad died in 2012, and that his adopted mom and older sister still lived near him.
Clark also shared each bit of information about his birth family with his adopted mom, now 79.
“I said, ‘How do you feel about this?’ And she said, ‘They will meet a fantastic guy, and I worked for 47 years for that to work.’ ”
The new family has plans for hunting and fishing trips. For summer vacations at the Gasson family cabin and for Christmas tree cutting the day after Thanksgiving. The parents and kids and grandkids talk every day.
But before vacations and holidays together, they needed to meet, face to face.
And so on Nov. 3 — 46 years, nine months and six days after waking in a hospital room without a baby — Kim Gasson ran down her driveway and hugged her son.