Zella Dixon, 84, of Hixson, has a simple explanation for how she survived the deaths of two sons.
Adversity, she says, can make one bitter or it can make one better.
In the late 1970s, Dixon's second-born son, Daniel, was killed by a drunken driver in an automobile accident in Miami, Fla. Daniel was 23. About 17 years later, her older son, Richard, died at age 42 of a brain aneurysm after a lifelong battle with drugs, Dixon said.
Dixon said her life has been shaped by the daily challenge of managing her grief. Now, she has reached a stage in life at which she wants to share her story in hopes of helping people burdened by heartbreak.
Her best advice: Live in the moment.
"We are always looking ahead instead of enjoying right now," she says.
Right now, Zella Dixon and her husband, Sherwin, who have been married for 65 years, live in a brick ranch house in Hixson with an American flag flying on the porch. Sherwin, a former professional baseball player and department store manager, has cancer, but his handshake can still crack your knuckles.
The two were married in 1950, just before Sherwin was shipped off to the Korean War. After the war, Sherwin played minor league baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for 10 years before settling into life as a family man and manager of J.C. Penney stores.
Members of the so-called Greatest Generation, the Dixons were born during the Great Depression and reared their three baby boomer offspring during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Besides their two sons, the Dixons have a daughter, Patti.
Zella was born in 1932 in Marion, Va. Her father was a laborer and her mother sold candy to sustain the family through hard times, she said. Zella remembers her poverty-stricken childhood as a carefree time, and she believes children today have it harder.
"I could never survive being a child today," she said, "there is too much pressure."
Zella said her boys had different personalities. Richard, the first-born, was a blond-haired charmer, she said — a natural salesman who lived close to the edge and took recreational drugs on and off through his life.
"Richard was the Brad Pitt of his high school," Zella recalled. "The girls loved him. He was a go-getter, an athlete, a golden-haired boy."
Daniel, the second-born, was a sweet-tempered artist who was an emerging jewelry designer at the time of his death.
"He was the sweetheart, the baby, the one that everybody loved," his mother explained.
While on a visit to Miami, Fla., Daniel's sports car was struck by a driver who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, killing Daniel and a friend who was a passenger in his Porsche.
No one was more impacted by his death than his older brother, Richard.
"I remember him [Richard] standing right there [in the kitchen] and saying, 'It should have been me,'" Zella said.
To which, she said she replied, "Richard, Danny was ready. Thank goodness we have been given more time."
Meanwhile, Richard had an uneven business career in advertising. He was working in marketing for a grocery chain in Atlanta at the time of his sudden death at age 42.
"His body had been damaged from the drugs," his mother said.
Zella recalled that "I love you" were the last words she said to each boy before they died.
"Our children will always be with us," she said. "Although we cannot touch them physically, they are as much a part of our family as they ever were."
Still after all these years, there are memory triggers everywhere, she said: Look-alikes at the mall. Songs on the radio that remind her of her sons.
"You've just got to learn to accept it," she says. "It takes every day to heal."
As to the choice between becoming "bitter" or becoming "better," Zella explained: "It's the 'I' that makes all the difference."