Rusty & Carolyn

The phone rings, the question is asked: “We have a 12 year old boy who needs an immediate placement. Could you take him temporarily? Maybe for just a month? We have another family in the process of becoming licensed foster parents for him, but his current placement isn’t working out and he must be moved ASAP!” Little did Ms. Carolyn Brickley (a single lady and 4’8” in heels) know, that by agreeing to accept Rusty Johnson as a foster child in her home, even temporarily, both their lives were about to drastically change forever.

Carolyn had fostered other children, but Rusty and her simply clicked and it didn’t take long for the caseworkers to notice this, too. For the first time Rusty’s behavior had taken a positive turn. All decided it best to keep Rusty in Carolyn’s home and enroll him in 6th grade, in the smaller school district of North Mahaska where he could receive one-on-one attention. He would also have Ms. Brickley close by, as she was the elementary music teacher.

There was another lady Rusty was particularly close to, Sandra, his biological mother. Rusty’s parents were divorced several years earlier. His mother was an alcoholic with other serious medical issues and his father, a recovering alcoholic. Because of this, Rusty lived with his father and three sisters before being placed in foster care. But, this didn’t distract Rusty from his sole mission: to live with his biological mother. If anyone could save her from herself, it was Rusty, or so he thought.

When Rusty came to live with Carolyn, his sisters were still with their father. But, time would show, soon Rusty’s sisters would all be placed in separate foster homes. However, during some of Rusty’s time with Carolyn, supervised visits were allowed between Rusty, his sisters, and their mother, Sandra. During one of these visits (while sitting around a Department of Human Services conference table with a caseworker present) Rusty’s mom gave him a saxophone she had kept that had been in the family. Sandra always had a particular love for the saxophone. Even through all the moves and hardships, Sandra kept hold of this saxophone with hopes Rusty would someday play and after hearing he was placed in a foster home with an elementary music teacher, the stars couldn’t have lined up more perfectly! She asked Rusty one promise, which was he would become Kenny G. She even reminded Rusty of this in the weekly letters she would send to him while living with Ms. Brickley.

Rusty also remembers the one time his mom was able to hear him play the saxophone, during Rusty’s 6th grade music recital. Ms. Brickley accompanied Rusty on piano for Bach’s “Minuet in G.” Rusty’s mom wasn’t allowed visits at this time, but nothing would stop her from hearing her son play the saxophone. Rusty looked out from stage and to his surprise, there was his mom gleaming ear to ear. After he was done playing, Rusty’s mom waited for him in the audience. When they met, Sandra gave Rusty one of his most cherished gifts ever: her cassette tapes of Kenny G and David Sanborn.

A short year after moving in with Carolyn, Rusty’s biological mother, Sandra, took her own life. This devastating blow put Rusty into a downward spiral eventually landing him in an institutionalized hospital because of his own detailed suicide plan. With help and guidance, Rusty didn’t forget the gift Sandra gave him shortly before dying. Practicing the saxophone was a way to keep his mother’s memory alive.

Carolyn and Rusty continued to fight battles on the home front. Months after being placed in Carolyn’s foster home, Rusty suffered from agonizing and debilitating back pain. Throughout the course of two major surgeries, a blood sack larger than a hot water bottle was discovered located in Rusty’s back, which scan revealed was wrapping around his heart and growing faster than the best doctors in the country could keep up with. Hope seemed to be lost after being given a life expectancy, but maybe because of the angels and his mother above, a miracle happened. Because other medical professionals were reaching out attempting to save Rusty’s life, a doctor was discovered. At the time, Dr. Wayne Yakes was the very doctor who invented the procedures to operate on the very rare condition that was taking Rusty’s life. Dr. Yakes was also the only doctor who would tackle a mass of Rusty’s size. For the next several years (and eventually 30 + surgeries later), Rusty would attend school yet make monthly flights with Carolyn from Iowa to Colorado to undergo these life-saving operations and then, several more reconstructive surgeries.

Three years after living together, Rusty and Carolyn decided to open their home to foreign exchange students. At first, everything was wonderful. However, Rusty and Carolyn were still dealing with the death of his mother, fighting the courts to keep Rusty in the State’s custody, and now Rusty was feeling threatened by two other boys in the home. At the end of the year, Rusty was moved to another foster home, a home where two of his biological sisters were also placed. During Rusty’s senior year of high school, he moved from this home after he was the only of his siblings left living there.

It took almost ten years after Rusty moved from Carolyn’s home for the two to finally sit, face one another and talk about their battle scars. Rusty had since went onto college and moved from Iowa to Texas for graduate school and then to China to play fulltime as a professional saxophonist. Carolyn had remained at North Mahaska Elementary teaching full-time music. Their bond had remained, even be it under layers of emotion, confusion, and even hurt.

Now, ten years more have passed since Carolyn and Rusty had their face-to-face chat. Since, they’ve become closer than ever. Carolyn has been an active part and inspiration in Rusty’s life, often visiting him when he lived in Texas, then Los Angeles, and was a main contributing factor getting Rusty back to Iowa. They’ve traveled to Germany together, given joint speeches to child welfare advocates and foster youth, and most recently decided to adopt one another on Rusty’s 37th birthday on July, 28th, 2017.

Two years after sending a text to Carolyn asking her to adopt him, Rusty was finally and emotionally ready to be adopted.

It was late at night when Rusty sent a text to Carolyn, asking: “Why did you never adopted me?” Carolyn’s reply was simple: “You never asked me! But, are you?” It took Rusty awhile to respond, but the answer was, “Yes.” Carolyn’s response took just as much time. “I’ve only waited 20 years for this”.