When Jerry Butler first sang “Only the Strong Survive” in 1968, he was talking about a man with a broken heart learning to pick himself up and move on. The message resonated as his hit reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, with eventual versions by Elvis Presley, the Dutch group The Trammps, and even an eight minute club mix produced by Frankie Knuckles.
The title was used for an album compilation of soul music, a 2002 documentary on soul music, and it has inspired a wealth of quotes, t-shirts and tattoos. No wonder. The phrase itself goes well beyond recovering from a devastating love affair as it touches on each of our need to find inner strength to overcome whatever life throws at us.
Alex, the hero of z2, has a fondness for oldies. He is a strong man in the classic sense of being big and athletic. But he is also wiser than most, and he knows that true strength comes in many types of packages. As he gets to know the new transfer student named Xuha (pronounced “schwa”) he recognizes that along with the boy’s unusually short stature is a strength that is both physical and mental. Read the excerpt below to understand why Alex hears the Jerry Butler hit from 1968 in his head as he hits tennis balls with Xuha.
“Your real parents?” he asked hesitantly.
“Never knew my dad,” Xuha shook his head. “But I’m told he was not only there when I was born, but he delivered me.” To Alex’s surprised look he added, “I was an emergency birth in a car. Not my style to come into this world in a normal fashion, huh?” Alex could see the raw emotion behind the bravado.
“You knew your mother?” he asked gently.
“Oh yes. She came to the United States because my grandfather was here for cancer treatments. They were from Mexico City. Nice established family. Had some money, at least before my grandfather got ill. The treatments didn’t help and my grandfather died here in Houston hours after I was born. I’m told I was rushed to his deathbed. His first, his only, grandchild. He cried when he saw me and then he died.” Xuha laughed. “How’s that for a start in life?”
“You knew your grandmother then?”
“She raised me until I was almost six. Sort of.”
“Sort of?” Alex asked. He hoped he wasn’t treading too far into personal ground.
“Well, she never was very strong after my grandfather died. Sad. Sick a lot. Always crying. Lot of crying in my history, huh? But she wouldn’t go back to Mexico right away because they buried my grandfather here and she wanted to spend time by his grave. I’m told that my mother agreed to stay with her until she was done grieving, and my grandmother kept promising that she’d be ready to go in just a month or two more but she never was.”
“Your dad didn’t stay too?”
“He couldn’t. He had to get back to work. My grandmother told me that he got angry with my mother when she didn’t come home after a while and my parents fought on the phone and then my mom got hit by a car.”
“Yes. Buella said I was three, three and a half. I don’t remember my mother. But after she died all my grandmother did was cry every day and night and I do remember all those tears. She blamed herself for everything. I used to heat canned things up for dinner and try to get her to eat. I guess I was almost six when she died. Just died in her bed.”
Alex looked at Xuha and watched the boy make a clown’s sad face that mocked his own sorrow. “Then I was the one who cried. I thought it was my fault that she died, you see. That if I’d known how to cook she’d have eaten and gotten strong and gotten out of bed and then fed us both.” He added a comic eye roll. “A child’s logic, huh? If I could have cooked better I’d have had someone to feed me.” Alex didn’t laugh.
“Your foster mother found you then?”
“Yeah. She was a neighbor, and according to her she was kind of keeping an eye on me already. Newly married, really pregnant with her first child. When Buella died she and her husband took me in and fed me and never fought once about my being there. They raised and treated me like their own, as best they could. Most of what I know about my real parents comes from things my grandmother said, but she told Maria, my foster mom, the same stories. So I believe them.”
“Wow Xuha.” Alex wasn’t sure what else to say when an odd question occurred to him. “So you were born in the U.S.? You’re a citizen?”
“I think so. I have a birth certificate. From the hospital in Houston where my grandfather died.”
“Where does it say you were born?”
“In route to hospital.”
”Well that should count,” Alex mused.
“Why do you ask?” Xuha seemed a little defensive now.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I guess because I am helping out some friends of my son. There are some complicated nationality and immigration issues involved and he knows that I’ve dealt with some of this before. So it was on my mind. It just seems that you’ve had enough trouble in your young life, and for some reason the animosity towards undocumented immigrants has grown exponentially in our region over the last couple of years. It’s pretty sad. I’m just glad to know that you’re okay in that regard.”
Xuha didn’t say anything for several seconds. Alex took the cue and sipped his own tea in silence.
“I don’t think that Maria and Diego have the same luxury,” Xuha said finally.
“No, I was guessing that they didn’t. Let’s keep that between us. Your foster parents sound like wonderful people working very hard to raise a family and do what’s right. I’d hate to see any trouble come their way.”
As Alex and Xuha made their way back onto the court to finish their workout, Alex couldn’t help but notice the song that was playing in his head. Without thinking about it, he was hitting tennis balls to the rhythm of the Motown hit “Only the Strong Survive”.
Check out this video. It will have you swaying in your chair, humming along and feeling just a little stronger yourself. If interested, you can purchase the song at Amazon.com.
And remember …..
With the second song of each book, I pick up on the intensity of the theme a little more. Click on to read about x0’s “We are the World“, y1’s “Party Like it’s 1999“, c3’s “Heads Carolina” and d4’s “I Follow Rivers“.