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Human Interest

‘I Needed to Remember Him as Warm’: Watching My Son OD on Heroin and Keeping His Memory Alive

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From left: Tracee Slagel and her son Frank Pucciarelli on his 18th birthday. "He smiled so much when he wasn't on drugs," she says.
Tracee Slagel

Opioids have killed thousands of people in America — newlyweds, honor students, grandparents and many more — and experts say the rate of fatal overdoses has accelerated in recent years. Alongside a special report on the epidemic in this week’s issue, on newsstands now, PEOPLE is publishing several first-person essays online from those who have lost loved ones to addiction, to put faces and names to the statistics and bring their stories to light.

This account is from Pennsylvania mother Tracee Slagel about her son Frank “Frankie” Pucciarelli, as told to PEOPLE’s Alexandra Rockey Fleming earlier this year. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

My son Frankie died on April 25, 2017. He was 18 years old. It was the worst moment of my life.

Six days earlier he’d woken up for work at 6 a.m. His brothers (two, and one sister) were also up, getting ready for school. My dad saw Frankie go into his room and lock his door. His 13-year-old brother, Joey, saw this as well.

Ten minutes later my mom is banging on my door, shouting, “We can’t get his door open! He won’t answer his door!” I knew immediately but started praying: No, this can’t be happening. He’d just returned from his third rehab. No. No.

I ran upstairs. My dad was breaking the door down. No. I can’t breathe. He is only 18! Only. The life I live I want to take out of me, the pain hurts so bad. We get the door open. I scream. I scream with all my heart. NOOOOO. This can’t be. Why? Why? NO. I SCREAM. Loud.

All the kids come running. Joey takes his 10-year-old sister, Izzy, and puts her in her room. Somehow 911 has been called by my boyfriend. I don’t know how he called. He must have heard my screaming.

Frankie’s brother Donnie, 16, starts screaming like me. We cannot believe this is happening. This can’t be. We loved him so much. NO. This isn’t happening.

From left: Izzy, Frankie and Joey at his first homecoming. “He looked strong, handsome, like he had the world in his hands,” his mom says. “Underneath was a crumpled mess he hid from everyone. You wouldn’t know it by judging the cover. “
Tracee Slagel
From left: Donnie, Frankie and Joey on Frankie’s birthday in 2015. “He had just gotten out of rehab,” his mom says. “We tried to celebrate and have a little party for him, to give him encouragement.”
Tracee Slagel

Why are the EMTs taking so long? I’m standing outside waiting while my boyfriend performs CPR. I beg them to get here faster. Why is it taking so long? Why?

My boyfriend took a CPR class. He jumped right in. He said to me, “I saw Frankie look at me before he went.” But my boyfriend kept going, and so did my dad. They fought for Frankie.

But Frankie was in so much pain. And I say “pain” as in anxiety — depression, social crap. He hurt in life.

But I am not sure if he was scared to die. He found God. He knew God loved him. He lasted for six days after his overdose. He gave me, his mom, a gift. Because seeing him blue, seeing him cold, seeing him dead — I couldn’t see that for the rest of my life. I see it every day, trust me. But I needed more of him and he knew that.

So he struggled so I could sleep with him. One more night. I needed to remember him as warm. And sweet. Not blue, not breathing. Not hearing the pain in his brother’s scream. His best friend. Almost twins. His sister who loved him more than anyone, crying beyond belief. Me. Screaming.

My boyfriend wanted Frankie’s brother’s help in CPR. He was going on for long minutes and needed help. But Donnie couldn’t fathom it, so my dad stepped in. He kept going.

Frankie (back) with his siblings on Christmas 2015. “They refused to go to the mall and get a Santa picture this year,” Slagel says. “I have one every year since he was born. It’s so hard getting teens together for a picture. This was a huge task. And I ended up Photoshopping Santa into the picture.”
Tracee Slagel
From left: Frankie and his mom. He “hated getting his picture taken,” she says, “but he always fell asleep in the car. I loved sneaking pics.”
Tracee Slagel

The cops show up. I’m yelling, “What took you so long!” Everyone saying, “Let them work on him, Tracee. Let them work.” I can’t breathe. I CANNOT BREATHE. He’s dead. No. He can’t be. But he is. What do I do? I’m praying so hard.

They take him to the emergency room. Was I in the car going with them? They wouldn’t let me in the ambulance, I do remember that. But the drive there? I remember saying, “FAST, get there, he’s dying.” (He’d been dead for 45 minutes.) I need him. I need to see him. Please. Please help me God. PLEASE. I begged.

If I prayed hard enough — please save him. I had thousands praying for him. I thought, Please God, this has to be a miracle.

But Frankie got a piece of heaven. And he didn’t want to come back here. He had a piece of heaven. He saw heaven. And he saw his life. He chose God. Who wouldn’t?

Six days later, they said he had no brain activity. I needed proof. You can’t just shut him down on a stupid state-list checking system. NO. but I knew he was gone. He was gone before he got there. But he wanted me to feel his body even though it didn’t mean anything to him. He was giving me a gift: warmth. Laying on him, hearing his heart beat even though it was done by the machine.

Frankie (center) with his mom and siblings. “The lot where our new house and new beginning was supposed to be on,” Slagel says. “Little did I know there was a dealer down the street.”
Tracee Slagel

I closed my eyes, thinking about when he was a baby. And I could hear his heart beat. I wanted to savor his heartbeat. But it was only the machine.

Where did I go wrong? Why? Why did I do this? I suck as a mom. I’m horrible. I should have been better. I pick on me every day. How does that help? It doesn’t. Every bone hurts. Every breath hurts. I want to help others. I need to — I can’t live without it.

Frankie wants me to help others. I didn’t do anything wrong. But I wish I could change everything. I wish I hadn’t been in a bad place. I wish I could have been stronger.

Thank you, Frankie, for loving me. I love you more than life.

From left: Slagel and Frankie on his birthday last year. “How am I going to experience another without him?” she says. “He was such a good artist, never ever gave himself credit for anything. But would lay his life down for anyone. He drew me that amazing card. It was so heartfelt.”
Tracee Slagel

How and Where to Get Help

If someone you know is addicted, these groups may be able to assist:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 800-662-4357: An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it offers referrals to treatment programs around the country.

ihateheroin.org: This Iowa-based nonprofit provides info and nationwide support for recovery assistance.

learn2cope.org: A support network for families dealing with addiction.