Pam Gilham remembered her son's birthday for more than 40 years, even though she never was able to celebrate one with him.
Two years ago in December, when he turned 40, she opened a drawer in her Texas home, and pulled out his baby pictures and the rosary that the sisters at Our Lady of Victory Home for Unwed Mothers had given her. Just like on every birthday before.
It was time to give up hope, she told herself.
She had left a letter with her baby son when he was placed for adoption, so he'd had 40 years to find her. Maybe he joined the military. He could have died. Whatever his story, she decided she was never destined to know it.
Little did she realize that her son, Jason John Jelsovsky, was just months away from embarking on a journey to find her with the tireless sleuthing efforts of his wife, Krista.
Her search paid off, and on Thursday, Jelsovsky watched as his birth mother walked past security at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. He stepped forward. His mother reached for him. They clung to each other, letting go only long enough to take a breath.
"I just wanted to know he'd had a good life," his 60-year-old mother said.
Jelsovsky had. And now that life will always involve the both of them.
Gilham was an 18-year-old senior at Cardinal O'Hara High School when she found herself pregnant by her 17-year-old boyfriend. Her disapproving parents sent her to the home for unwed mothers, where she gave birth to Jefferey John Smith on Dec. 30, 1975.
Determined to keep him, she initially placed him with a foster family while she struggled to find a job that would pay enough to support the two of them. For seven months, she tried. Her brother drove her to the foster family's house every week so she could visit with her baby.
But in the end, she was forced to place him for adoption.
"It was the most hard thing I've ever had to do in my life," Gilham said, tears welling. "I didn't know where he went."
The sweet-faced mother with the dark blonde bob and bangs reached for a tissue at the Jelsovsky's kitchen table. Others reached, too, eventually depleting the tissue box halfway through a story that took two hours and many voices to tell.
Gilham had written a letter that she handed off with her baby boy, requesting that the adoption be open and providing all of her identifiable information so that should the adoptive parents or her son ever want to find her, they could. In those days, open adoptions were rare.
She even gave her son a first name with an unusual spelling – Jefferey – so that if her son ever signed in at an office where she worked, she'd be tipped off to his identity.
"I didn't count on them changing his name," Gilham said.
She eventually married, moved away from the Town of Tonawanda and landed in Texas.
Jefferey John Smith became Jason John Jelsovsky, a lifelong Snyder resident and regional casino security director who unknowingly lived only 2 1/2 blocks away from where his birth mother worked for a while.
When he was 13, he learned that he was adopted. But he didn't actively seek out his birth parents until after his mother died in 2007 and his father died in 2011.
While the couple were cleaning out his parents' home, they came across a packet of letters and baby pictures –pictures Jason Jelsovsky had never seen of himself as an infant. The letters included one from his foster mother, painstakingly detailing his daily schedule as an infant.
"I must have read that a thousand times," he said.
The letter his birth mother had written was not among the papers. But there was a type-written report from Catholic Charities outlining details of the "natural mother" and "natural father" and the circumstances that led to his adoption. It was the most insight he had ever received regarding the circumstances of his birth.
"It kind of shook me," he said.
By this time, the Jelsovskys had two young children. Another daughter arrived the following year.
Jelsovsky's curiosity about his birth parents took a back seat to family life until July, when the couple hosted a baseball party for their 8-year-old son, Ayden, at their Angola lake house.
His coach mentioned that he was adopted, sparking a long conversation between Krista Jelsovsky and the coach.
The next day, the couple sat at their boat house along the edge of the water.
"OK," Jason told Krista. "I think I'm ready."
The search for his birth parents was on.
Jason Jelsovsky may have been ready to find his birth parents, but it was his wife who did the hunting.
She reached out to an aunt, who happened to know the local foster family who looked after Jelsovsky when he was an infant. After much online tracing, Krista Jelsovsky was able to connect with the only surviving member of the foster family, Sheryl Henning, living on Grand Island. Henning fondly remembered Jason being a part of her family when she was in her early 20s.
Over the coming weeks, Henning remembered more details about the birth mother: Her first name. Her shy disposition. The fact that she had a brother who drove her over for visits.
"Every time I talked with her, she'd tell me just a little bit more," Krista Jelsovsky said.
She also combed through roughly 20 yearbooks, scoured Baptismal certificates, spent hours at the Central Library scrolling through Courier Express microfilm with the help of some kind, guiding hands. She had her husband fill out information with adoption registries, solicited help from a volunteer "adoption angel" and paid for an Ancestry.com DNA kit.
Many nights, Jason Jelsovsky found his wife at her laptop, scouring for more clues while family life swirled around her.
He tried not to get his hopes up, though he wasn't a complete bystander to the search. He still recalls repeatedly spitting into a test tube for the DNA test with his wife watching.
"You don't realize how little saliva you have until it comes time," he said.
Henning, the former foster sibling, was finally able to recall the last name of the birth mother: It was Smith.
"At that point, I was feeling a little defeated," Krista Jelsovsky said.
The results of the DNA test, however, provided a vital clue – a cousin living in Rochester.
That cousin, Robert Mindler, became the key to unlocking everything.
Mindler was cautious about providing information to the Jelsovskys. For all he knew, they could be honing in on the wrong person. Moreover, the initial inquiries he made to his extended family members were dead ends. Very few relatives knew that Pam Gilham, the former Pam Smith, had placed her son for adoption.
But the more he heard and the more he researched, the more convinced he became that his distant aunt was the birth mother the Jelsovskys were looking for.
It was Henning who helped breach the dam. She uncovered paperwork in her basement listing the address for a Pam Smith on Glendale Road in the Town of Tonawanda.
That was enough for Mindler to share everything he knew. He even sent Krista Jelsovsky an image of a newspaper clipping featuring National Guardsmen. One was identified as First Lt. Robert V. Smith.
"Show Jason his grandfather," the text message read.
Then Mindler picked up the phone and called a cousin in Texas that he hadn't seen in more than 40 years – Greg Smith.
Moment of truth
Oct. 12 is the date seared into memory.
That's the day Greg Smith – Gilham's brother – received an odd call from a distant cousin. His only guess was that some relative had died. Why else would a man he hadn't seen since the day he got married be reaching out now?
Mindler launched into a lengthy explanation that Smith found hard to follow. Then he mentioned the fact that Jason Jelsovsky's birth mother had a brother who drove her to see her infant son in foster care.
"As soon as he said this, I said, 'OK, I know where you're going with this,'" Smith recalled.
He knew his sister would be overjoyed at the news, but he wanted the Jelsovskys to give his sister time to share the news with her husband, Kevin, and their son, Neil.
Both men already knew Gilham had placed her first son up for adoption, but she still wanted wanted to make sure they would have no objections to her making contact.
Neil Gilham, a 34-year-old surgical technician, was in the operating room when he received a text from his mom, asking him to call. That usually meant something bad was breaking. He stepped out and dialed her number.
But as far as he was concerned, the news she shared was wonderful.
Gilham also called her husband, who runs a manufacturing business, and asked him to join her for lunch. She refused to say why. He came home immediately. He, too, was thrilled.
Then Gilham picked up the phone and left a voicemail for Krista Jelsovsky. Her voice wavered as she spoke.
"H-Hi. This is Pam Gilham. I am Jason's biological mother, and, um, I would love to talk to him," she said.
Krista Jelsovsky immediately called back Gilham, who said she was a nervous wreck by the time the phone rang.
But Jelsovsky's warm and outgoing personality immediately put Gilham at ease. She promised she'd have her husband call as soon as he returned from work.
She also started sending Gilham pictures of the her grown-up son, a man Gilham had often tried to imagine as she stared at her own face in the mirror.
When she finally got a glimpse of her son's strong face, straight nose and deep laugh lines, she thought, "Of course. Of course, he would look like this."
The man behind the pictures, meanwhile, had carpooled to work that day and was stuck some distance from home. From the moment he heard his wife had connected with his birth mother, he couldn't concentrate on anything. He had a million questions, which his colleague suggested he write down. Jelsovsky was sure he'd remember them all.
But when he finally made the call to Gilham, he couldn't remember any of them. He was too overcome by hearing his birth mother's voice. He reassured her he harbored no resentment or anger toward her. Tears flowed on both ends of the phone line.
Gilham reached out to her two other sisters, and they all started making plans to fly to Buffalo.
When Jelsovsky saw Gilham walk out the double glass sliding doors of security at the Buffalo airport, he stepped forward and opened his arms.
Gilham had been crying from the moment she saw the Buffalo skyline from the air. She wrapped her arms around her son's neck. She stepped back to take a breath and get another look at his face before pulling him back into her.
This was where she was always meant to be.
Then it was time for other introductions. All told, seven family members from Texas and Colorado journeyed to Buffalo to meet Jason Jelsovsky and his family.
They've been talking ever since. Jelsovsky's half-brother met him on Saturday. The Jelsovskys threw a reunion party on Sunday and announced they'll be visiting the Gilhams in Texas this Christmas.
They've also exchanged gifts.
Gilham gave her son the rosary beads she received from the sisters at Our Lady of Victory. She had pulled them out countless times over the years whenever she thought of him. Now, they belong to the boy she once prayed to meet.
"I never put them down," Jason said, choking up. "They smell a little like her."
For his part, Jason gave his mother a necklace with a puzzle piece. Her puzzle piece says, "Mom" and "October 12, 2017" – for the day they found each each other.
Jason wears a similar necklace with fitting puzzle piece. It has the same date and says, "Son."