WHITEWATER, Wis. — After two sprays of Geau 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 Syck sang to Dayton before he was born and met all the doctors before the delivery.
Syck’s bottle of cologne still sits between photos of him on a shelf in Jessica Gault’s apartment in Whitewater. She has moved since Syck’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 Syck was found in a portable toilet in the fetal position dead from a heroin overdose, Gault’s 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, Syck was wearing the black sweatshirt Gault’s dad had given her for Christmas one year.
Syck’s was one of America’s 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, but how many Gaults 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.
Gault remembers everything about Syck — the jokes, the lies, the love notes, the dancing and the nightmare of holding his body.
Carrying it all, Gault and Dayton, now 2, drove to Palmyra to visit Syck’s grave on a cloudy Sunday morning Sept. 2.
It was the first anniversary of Syck’s death, and Gault still was trying to figure out how to live.
Gault, 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, Gault’s boss said Syck would be her new machine operator.
Gault made a fool of herself, and Syck made sure Gault, the woman he would eventually call his “stump,” didn’t forget it.
The jokes and references to the TV show “Friends” began. Gault said the two clicked right away. Syck would sing and dance, and Gault would laugh hysterically.
The two began seeing each other.
Josh Syck and his wife, Melissa Syck, remained close even in the process of separating — the two messaged the morning he died. Melissa Syck and Gault became friends, too, during Josh Syck’s life and after.
“She is amazing,” Melissa Syck told The Janesville Gazette .
Gault was pregnant with Dayton when she met Josh Syck, and she later separated from Dayton’s father.
Because of complications in her pregnancy, Gault saw her doctor every two or three weeks. Josh Syck was there with her every time.
Josh Syck often left Gault love notes on napkins, scrap paper, whatever he could find.
“I love you so much with all my heart!” begins one of several letters she kept. “You mean the world to me. You are my everything!”
Syck signed this letter “Your King.” The couple had matching crown tattoos. Gault, who also recently got “Sycko” tattooed on her right forearm to match Syck, has a crown on her neck.
But Gault’s king was not always honest with her — something familiar to the loved ones of those addicted to drugs. Syck told Gault he was clean and in recovery, and she said she believed him.
But there were frequent requests to borrow $10 or $20. And Syck nodding off. She didn’t recognize the truth.
The world of addiction wasn’t Gault’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.”
Late at night Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, Gault knelt in front of Syck, 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. … What is this?'” Jessica wrote in 2017.
To reconstruct what happened in the 24 hours before Syck’s death, The Gazette reviewed police reports, court documents and 47 pages of notes Gault wrote in a notebook two weeks after she found his body.
She wrote she was “fuming with anger” after finding the syringe in his pocket. Syck 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.
Syck left the next morning at 10:30 or 10:45, Gault 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.
Gault later began to worry when she didn’t hear from him. She began asking around, to Melissa Syck and to Jeremy Meyer, a man Josh Syck was supposed to meet.
Hours went by — nothing from Josh Syck.
At 6:36 p.m., Gault messaged Josh Syck before she and Melissa Syck went to look for him.
When Gault saw Meyer 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 Gault and Meyer arriving at 11 p.m.
A deputy medical examiner pronounced Josh Syck 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 Syck loved sweatshirts. He died in one. Gault still wears others that belonged to him.
Gault’s notebook is worn, and the notes are exhaustive. They show the juxtaposition of love for and anger toward someone addicted to drugs — the love of lying on his chest even after a fight, the anger at discovering his lies.
Servi once joked Gault 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. His trial has been postponed until February.
Meyer’s girlfriend, Kori 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.
The night of Syck’s death was scarring enough. Servi was with Gault until 4 or 4:30 in the morning making sure she was OK.
But Gault’s pain has stayed with her in the year since.
Dayton would walk to the patio door in their old apartment, waiting for Syck to come back.
After Syck’s funeral, where attendees wore jerseys, Gault left in her car. She had to pull over and scream.
Syck loved jerseys. He was buried in one — Los Angeles Lakers No. 33, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Soon after Syck’s gravestone was placed, Gault 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 Gault was unable to shake the images from the night Syck 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.
Gault 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, Gault dropped off Dayton at his father’s. She went to a gas station and bought a Monster Energy java drink, one of Syck’s favorites.
She had made her decision.
Gault 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.
Gault 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.
Gault 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 Gault had missed too many days.
On the morning she could have died, Gault 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.”
At 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 2, the one-year anniversary of Syck’s death, Gault 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. Gault thought he had a nightmare.
Inside the apartment, a pair of Syck’s shoes sat by the door.
Gault said she usually warns guests coming to her apartment about the number of Josh-related items, including several hats she had gotten him.
Syck loved hats. Gault picked a Chicago Bulls one to match the shirt she chose that morning — a Michael Jordan one that belonged to Syck.
Hanging above a shelf of framed photos of Syck and his kids are drawings, including one on an index card from Josh Syck’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, Gault 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, Gault parked her car and walked to Syck’s grave.
Standing where Syck is buried in a “beautiful” white casket, Gault 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 Syck’s life might have kept him alive longer.
Gault said she wishes Syck 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.”
After visiting the cemetery in the morning, Gault and Dayton visited Syck’s mom and other family in the afternoon.
Dayton found poster boards of pictures the family had assembled for Syck’s funeral, Gault said. Seeing a picture of Syck and Gault, Dayton said, “Dada, Dada.”
Gault had made plans for later that evening to make lasagna — Josh Syck’s favorite. She had only made the dish once since he died, during a girls’ night with Melissa Syck.
But Gault canceled her plans. Her post-traumatic stress disorder kicked in. She just wanted to “shut it up.”
When Dayton went to bed, Gault 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 Syck’s faded hoodies — Jordan brand, black and white.
Gault had made it through the one-year anniversary of Syck’s death. But she was at the doorway of another poignant day: Syck’s birthday, Sept. 3.
She said she doesn’t think she and Dayton left their home at all that Monday. Cleaning helped distract her. Gault 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 Syck’s sister.
“She told me to light it whenever I feel like he’s not with me,” Gault said.
Gault made it through Sunday, 365 days after messaging Syck to not give in.
She made it through Monday, what would have been Syck’s 36th birthday.
Up next was Tuesday, Sept. 4, and a court hearing for Meyer, the man implicated in Josh’s death.
Gault showed up eight minutes late. Servi was on the witness stand. Gault first sat next to three of Syck’s family members but later moved to the back row by herself.
Gault 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 Meyer 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,” Gault said.
It was all becoming unbearable again — the nightmares, the canceled plans, the memories.
At Dayton’s father’s house, Gault grabbed a water bottle. She looked at her bottle of anxiety medication.
No more nightmares. No more court appearances. No more birthdays without Syck.
She took every pill in the bottle.
Gault said she can’t remember anything else from that night.
When she woke in the hospital, Gault 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.”
Sitting recently by the water at Babe Mann Park in Elkhorn, Gault 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,” Gault said. “We’re always gonna have that hurt and that hole of missing him and wanting him here.”
Before Syck died, Gault 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!”
Gault 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.”
Gault 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 Gault 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,” Gault said.
Dayton, who turns 3 in February, will have ways to remember Syck.
Gault in her notebook keeps a letter Syck 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,” Syck 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.
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette.
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