Relationships are built on the number of emotionally charged shared experiences between individuals. 9/11 was a huge emotionally charged shared experience for America. The experience started on 9/11/01 and lasted for weeks and months afterwards. It seemed like all of America opted to put down their differences and pause to love their neighbor. It was unreal and amazing, but I missed it all.
I was studying at the Goethe Institute in Berlin, Germany during the Fall of 2001. Berlin is six hours ahead of New York City. When the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:45 a.m. EST, it was 2:45 p.m. in Berlin. I just got home from school and sat down to watch the BBC. I didn’t have a computer then, so the BBC was my only source of information. A few moments later, my parents in Chicago called. We cried on the phone together. Then I hung up and I sat alone in my apartment. My girlfriend, now my wife, called and we talked. We cried. Then I hung up and watched the BBC for the next 12 hours. I didn’t sleep because I couldn’t sleep. My parents called a few more times and we talked and cried. Then I was alone again. I wanted to so desperately talk to someone, a fellow American face-to-face. But I sat in my apartment and watched BBC. Too shocked to move.
The next day I went to class and everyone’s face was ingrained with hours of crying from the night before. We broke our “German Only” rule to vent with one another even though most of the class weren’t native English speakers. It helped. It made me feel like I was home. We cried some more. It was sad. The next day, one of the other Americans in the class decided to end her trip early and fly back home to Texas to be with her family. I stayed.
The next couple weeks I read, heard, and watched more and more stories of massive vigils and gatherings happening around the U.S. It was as if America was one big family and though we had our differences, it didn’t matter. Every house flew an American flag. The pictures were amazing. The videos were amazing. The stories were amazing. I spent hours at the internet cafe absorbing as much as I could.
I stayed in Berlin through the New Year for my class. By the time I flew back to Chicago, the emotionally charged shared experience of 9/11 was mostly faded. People were getting back to their routine. There were no more group vigils and the number of flying American flags went down.
My wife does her best to try and explain what it was like the days, weeks and months after 9/11, but explaining it is secondary to actually being there. It’s as if I went to the bathroom during the critical part of a movie and have to keep asking people what happened. But unlike a movie, I can’t rewind 9/11. I forever have to experience it through the lens of other people.
I have my story, but it’s not the same emotionally charged shared story as the rest of the country, so I still cling to every new story I hear as if somehow it’ll help me piece together what it was really like to be here, in America, with fellow Americans.