After two sprays of Geàu cologne, Dayton ran his arms down the middle of his chest.
Just like Dada used to do.
The man Dayton called “Dada” died when Dayton was 1. Joshua Robert Syck wasn’t Dayton’s biological father, but Josh sang to Dayton before he was born and met all the doctors before the delivery.
Josh’s bottle of cologne still sits between photos of Josh on a shelf in Jessica Gault’s apartment in Whitewater. She has moved since Josh’s death. It’s not the apartment where she last watched him walk away, the apartment 776 steps from where he died one day before his 35th birthday.
One year after Josh was found in a portable toilet in the fetal position dead from a heroin overdose, her apartment still is filled with reminders of her boyfriend—drawings, photographs, hats from sports teams and superheroes he loved.
It was fentanyl that killed him. Holding a syringe and slumped over, Josh was wearing the black sweatshirt Jessica’s dad had given her for Christmas one year.
Josh’s was one of America’s 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, but how many Jessicas are there?
Nobody counts how many were left behind, how many struggle to get through each day after finding a loved one’s cold body.
Jessica remembers everything about Josh—the jokes, the lies, the love notes, the dancing and the nightmare of holding his body.
Carrying it all, Jessica and Dayton, now 2, drove to Palmyra to visit Josh’s grave on a cloudy Sunday morning Sept. 2.
It was the first anniversary of Josh’s death, and Jessica still was trying to figure out how to live.
Jessica, 23, grew up in Elkhorn. She started working at Universal Electronics in February 2015, about seven months before a tall man she later would call her “tree” started working there, too.
One day, Jessica’s boss said Josh would be her new machine operator.
“Who the f--- is Josh?” Jessica asked.
“The really tall guy,” her boss responded.
Jessica made a fool of herself, and Josh made sure Jessica, the woman he would eventually call his “stump,” didn’t forget it.
The jokes and references to the TV show “Friends” began. Jessica said the two clicked right away. Josh would sing and dance, and Jessica would laugh hysterically.
Jessica and Josh began seeing each other.
Josh and his wife, Melissa Syck, remained close even in the process of separating—the two messaged the morning he died. Melissa and Jessica became friends, too, during Josh’s life and after.
“She is amazing,” Melissa said.
Jessica was pregnant with Dayton when she met Josh, and she later separated from Dayton’s father.
Because of complications in her pregnancy, Jessica saw her doctor every two or three weeks. Josh was there with her every time.
Josh often left Jessica love notes on napkins, scrap paper, whatever he could find.
“I LOVE YOU SO MUCH WITH ALL MY HEART!” begins one of several letters Jessica kept. “YOU MEAN THE WORLD TO ME. YOU ARE MY EVERYTHING!”
Josh signed this letter “YOUR KING.” The couple had matching crown tattoos. Jessica, who also recently got “Sycko” tattooed on her right forearm to match Josh, has a crown on her neck.
But Jessica’s king was not always honest with her—something familiar to the loved ones of many addicts. Josh told Jessica he was clean and in recovery, and she said she believed him.
But there were frequent requests to borrow $10 or $20. And Josh nodding off. She didn’t recognize the truth.
The world of addiction wasn’t Jessica’s world. She smoked weed three times in high school, when she also used to pretend to drink alcohol. She only drinks on occasion now, she said.
“I feel like that was a huge violation of my trust,” she said. “I guess I should have seen a lot of the signs.”
‘DO NOT GIVE IN LIKE THIS’
Late at night Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, Jessica knelt in front of Josh, who was sitting in the bathroom. She had her hands on his knees, asking what was in his pockets.
Despite his objections, she found a needle.
“Tears welled up into my eyes as I asked, ‘Why? Why do you have this sh--? What is this?'” Jessica wrote in 2017.
To reconstruct what happened in the 24 hours before Josh’s death, The Gazette reviewed police reports, court documents and 47 pages of notes Jessica wrote in a notebook two weeks after she found Josh’s body.
Those closest to Joshua Robert Syck remember a tall, funny man who cared deeply for his family and matching his clothes from head to toe. Josh died of a heroin overdose last year.
Jessica wrote she was “fuming with anger” after finding the syringe in Josh’s pocket. Josh implored her to follow him to the dumpster and watch him throw the drugs away.
The two later sat in bed. He watched the show “Dexter” while she read. They didn’t speak.
Josh left the next morning at 10:30 or 10:45, Jessica wrote. He gave her a hug and kiss and said he loved her.
The last time she saw him, he was walking through a gap in the fence behind their apartment leading to UW-Whitewater’s Lot 22, where he often scored drugs.
Jessica later began to worry when she didn’t hear from Josh. She began asking around, to Melissa and to Jeremy D. Meyer, a man Josh was supposed to meet.
Hours went by—nothing from Josh.
At 6:36 p.m., Jessica messaged Josh before she and Melissa went to look for him.
“your daughter is crying worried about you Josh. I’m worried… Jeremy is worried, Melissa is worried your mom is worried….,” she wrote. “YOU ARE STRONGER THAN ANY BULLSH--. DO NOT GIVE IN LIKE THIS.”
When Jessica saw Jeremy peek inside the portable toilet a few hours later, she knew what he had seen. She didn’t want to believe it.
Security camera video shows a man entering the portable toilet at 11:15 a.m. UW-Whitewater police Detective Cal Servi watched the video and saw no one else approach until the video shows Jessica and Jeremy arriving at 11 p.m.
A deputy medical examiner pronounced Josh dead at 11:58 p.m., two minutes before his 35th birthday. At 12:44 a.m., he was wrapped in a white sheet and put into a body bag.
Josh loved sweatshirts. He died in one. Jessica still wears others that belonged to him.
Jessica’s notebook is worn, and the notes are exhaustive. They show the juxtaposition of love for and anger toward an addict—the love of lying on his chest even after a fight, the anger at discovering his lies.
Servi once joked Jessica has a detective’s attention to detail. In an interview, the detective said she was “thorough" and "helpful.”
Accused of delivering the fatal heroin, Jeremy Meyer, 37, of Whitewater has pleaded not guilty to a charge of party to first-degree reckless homicide and other charges. He was scheduled to go to trial Monday, but the trial at the last minute was postponed until February.
Meyer’s girlfriend, Kori L. Kincaid, 40, also of Whitewater, stood mute to a charge of party to reckless homicide and related charges. A judge entered not guilty pleas for her. She is scheduled for a November trial.
‘It’s not your fault’
The night of Josh’s death was scarring enough. Servi was with Jessica until 4 or 4:30 in the morning making sure she was OK.
But Jessica’s pain has stayed with her in the year since.
Dayton would walk to the patio door in their old apartment, waiting for Josh to come back.
After Josh’s funeral, where attendees wore jerseys, Jessica left in her car. She had to pull over and scream.
Josh loved jerseys. He was buried in one—Los Angeles Lakers No. 33, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Soon after Josh’s gravestone was placed, Jessica would go to the cemetery by herself and lie down. One night, after arriving at about 11 p.m., she stayed until 6 the next morning.
But Jessica was unable to shake the images from the night Josh died. She has post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and major depressive disorder. When she was in a portable toilet at another county’s fair, she said she had a panic attack.
Jessica was angry. She felt guilty for not seeing the signs sooner. Her world was “shattering” around her, she said. It was all “too much to handle.”
About a week after the funeral, Jessica dropped off Dayton at his father’s. She went to a gas station and bought a Monster Energy java drink, one of Josh’s favorites.
She had made her decision.
Jessica wrote a letter to her mom, apologizing and saying it wasn’t her fault.
She wrote to her dad that she wasn’t as strong as she had thought.
Jessica went home and took all the pills she could find. But she threw up on the side of her bed, and stayed there all day until about 5:30 p.m., when she had to pick up Dayton.
Jessica eventually saw a therapist and psychiatrist. She entered inpatient treatment at Rogers Behavioral Health in Oconomowoc, she said.
The job she worked at through a temp agency had to let her go, she said. The human resources person who fired her was in tears but said Jessica had missed too many days.
On the morning she could have died, Jessica wrote a third letter.
“I am so proud of you, Dayton! I always will be,” the letter states in cursive pink writing. “I’m sorry for leaving you Honey, but I want you to know it’s not your fault. You are not the reason Baby Boy!
“Know that I am always with you, Dayton. I love you Sweetheart.”
The ‘Circle of Life’
At 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 2, the one-year anniversary of Josh’s death, Jessica stood outside her apartment, smoking a cigarette. She tapped on her window as Dayton looked out.
Asked how she was doing, she paused. She said she hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and neither had Dayton. Jessica thought he had a nightmare.
Inside the apartment, a pair of Josh’s shoes sat by the door.
Jessica said she usually warns guests coming to her apartment about the number of Josh-related items, including several hats she had gotten him.
Josh loved hats. Jessica picked a Chicago Bulls one to match the shirt she chose that morning—a Michael Jordan one that belonged to Josh.
Hanging above a shelf of framed photos of Josh and his kids are drawings, including one on an index card from Josh’s daughter, Chloe, drawn on the night he died.
At 9:25 a.m., it was time to leave. Dayton was glued to a phone playing educational videos. On the way out, "The Lion King’s" “Circle of Life” started playing—a different story of a young boy losing his father.
On the way to the cemetery with her car windows down, Jessica passed Servi, who was helping direct traffic during move-in for UW-Whitewater. He said "hi" right before she drove past Lot 22 and a portable toilet near the intramural fields.
She can’t escape that scene.
Arriving in Palmyra, Jessica parked her car and walked to Josh’s grave.
Standing where Josh is buried in a “beautiful” white casket, Jessica said she felt “a lot of emotions in one.”
“I… I’m still very upset about it, and I keep thinking that it’s… He’s just gonna come back,” she said. “I’m gonna wake up, and I’m gonna be in the old apartment, and he’s gonna walk through the door.”
She’s not just upset, she’s angry. Her therapist told her she has been through the worst of it. Servi said her presence in Josh’s life might have kept him alive longer.
Jessica said she wishes Josh would have told her about the heroin. She feels like she could have helped him, but then she pivots.
“You can’t help somebody that doesn’t want the help, which is something that is really hard for me to come to terms with,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to end the way it did.
“I would have given him the world if I could have.”
‘You’re here again’
After visiting the cemetery in the morning, Jessica and Dayton visited Josh’s mom and other family in the afternoon.
Dayton found posterboards of pictures the family had assembled for Josh’s funeral, Jessica said. Seeing a picture of Josh and Jessica, Dayton said, “Dada, Dada.”
Jessica had made plans for later that evening to make lasagna—Josh’s favorite. She had only made the dish once since he died, during a girls’ night with Melissa.
But Jessica canceled her plans. Her post-traumatic stress disorder kicked in. She just wanted to “shut it up.”
When Dayton went to bed, Jessica tried to watch an episode of “Friends.”
She tried. Then she turned it off. It was too hard.
That night she slept poorly again. She had nightmares, the recurring ones of “that night,” she later said while wearing one of Josh’s faded hoodies—Jordan brand, black and white.
Jessica had made it through the one-year anniversary of Josh’s death. But she was at the doorway of another poignant day: Josh’s birthday, Sept. 3.
She said she doesn’t think she and Dayton left their home at all that Monday. Cleaning helped distract her. Jessica had wanted to participate in the Walworth County Fair’s Demolition Derby to get out her anger, but she couldn’t find a car to use in time.
At night she lit a candle, a Christmas gift from Josh’s sister.
“She told me to light it whenever I feel like he’s not with me,” Jessica said.
Jessica made it through Sunday, 365 days after messaging Josh to not give in.
She made it through Monday, what would have been Josh’s 36th birthday.
Up next was Tuesday, Sept. 4, and a court hearing for Jeremy, the man implicated in Josh’s death.
Jessica showed up eight minutes late. Servi was on the witness stand. Jessica first sat next to three of Josh’s family members but later moved to the back row by herself.
Jessica put her head down on her arms, resting on the bench in front of her.
She was getting angry. Her anxiety was “very high.” Seeing Jeremy made her “very pissed off,” she said outside the courthouse after the hearing.
“I just, I can’t stand being in the same room with him,” Jessica said.
It was all becoming unbearable again—the nightmares, the canceled plans, the memories.
At Dayton’s father’s house, Jessica grabbed a water bottle. She looked at her bottle of anxiety medication.
No more nightmares. No more court appearances. No more birthdays without Josh.
She took every pill in the bottle.
Jessica said she can’t remember anything else from that night.
When she woke in the hospital, Jessica thought to herself, “You’re here again.”
“Everyone (was) asking me why I did it,” she said. “And I told them. I just didn’t want to wake up in the morning.”
‘I know he’s with me’
Sitting recently by the water at Babe Mann Park in Elkhorn, Jessica said she was in a much better place mentally. She has tools for mindfulness.
Her roommate at inpatient was a heroin addict. Jessica is reading books about addiction in hopes of understanding it better, in hopes of maybe finding a job where she can help addicts.
Below her “Sycko” tattoo sits an older one she got with a friend. It says, “Never look back”—which is probably unavoidable.
“The rest of our lives are gonna be very painful,” Jessica said. “We’re always gonna have that hurt and that hole of missing him and wanting him here.”
Before Josh died, Jessica said, he promised her a new toaster. So now, when she starts to feel herself get upset, she looks to the sky and yells, “You owe me a toaster!”
Jessica doesn’t know if her life will get better, but perhaps it will get a little easier.
“The grieving, it’s always gonna be there,” she said. “Everyone grieves in their own way. It does get easier. But it takes a lot of family and support to keep going.
“It’s gonna hurt, and that’s OK.”
Jessica encourages those in similar circumstances—the families and friends of the other 74 men and women who died from drug-related deaths in Walworth County from 2014 to 2017—to talk about it, feel their feelings, take care of themselves and ask for help.
And Jessica had one more suggestion.
“They should just come to me, and I’ll give them a hug,” she said. “I give good hugs.”
Those left behind trudge through each day—holding onto memories, questions, anger and love.
“I know he’s with me, though,” Jessica said.
Dayton, who turns 3 in February, will have ways to remember Josh.
Jessica in her notebook keeps a letter Josh wrote to Dayton for his first birthday.
“Your mom does an amazing job raising you, and she is going to make you into a great man,” Josh wrote. “I will always be there for you no matter what you need. You mean the world to me, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you.
Those who are struggling after the loss of a loved one to a drug overdose can call the Walworth County Department of Health & Human Services’ Crisis Intervention Program at 262-741-3200 or 800-365-1587.
Some other resources, as recommended by local officials, include: Aurora Health Care’s support group, called "Healing After the Loss of a Loved One Due to Addiction" (262-767-7185); Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in East Troy’s grief group (262-642-3310); and Your Choice to Live, based in Hartland (262-367-9901).
If you live in Rock or Walworth counties and would like to share your story of dealing with loss, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-755-8294.