It was a beautiful afternoon in Cortona, Italy. I sat on the piazza steps taking in the scenery of people milling about, shop keepers re-opening their shops after siesta and restaurants preparing for the late afternoon swell of customers. I munched on my panini and dated my journal entry: Tuesday September 11, 2001. Little did I know that as I sat writing about the serenity of my surroundings, complete and utter chaos had broken loose back home in the United States. A man approached me and asked with urgency, “Are you an American? Have you heard?” And then he proceeded to share the awful news that is now a part of our country’s history forever.
That evening one of the local restaurants brought in TV’s and closed their kitchen for the night. Word spread that all Americans in town were welcome to watch the news at the restaurant, where a translator volunteered to translate the news. We huddled together and watched in horror as people jumped from windows and the masses ran screaming through the dusty streets, covered in bloody shock. Many of us tried to call home but the phone lines were inundated with the desperate phone calls of people trying to connect with loved ones, so we couldn’t get through. All we could do was sit with the sympathy of foreigners and watch, helpless and homesick.
Our group of Americans ate dinner at a local restaurant in silence that night. A heavy hopelessness had settled over us. The Italians around us searched for the right words, but came up short. What was there to say?
Everything will be okay?
There were no words. Only silence seemed appropriate.
But when there are no healing words to offer, there’s always music. Somehow music has the ability to fill that aching void in a way that words simply cannot. An Italian working at the restaurant that night knew this and decided to break the heavy silence that loomed over everyone. The sound of Frank Sinatra’s voice flooded the sound system so loud that it spilled into the street. The familiar lyrics of New York, New York enveloped us all like a hearty embrace from home. As the music got louder and filled the street, people all around stopped what they were doing. Italian servers put down their serving trays. Americans put down their forks. Everyone paused. Listened. Paid tribute. We sat and listened, drinking from the energy and pride and hope and promise of the song. And then Italians began asking Americans to dance. One by one we paired up—Italians and Americans—and danced slowly together. The music was so loud it hurt, but the throbbing in our ears was a welcomed distraction from the throbbing in our hearts. The sweetness of the gesture made by the Italians offered comfort and solidarity to all of us who were scared and hurting and feeling very, very far from home.
It’s one of my most beautiful memories to this day.
Twelve years later, what stands out to me most about September 11th is not the terror, not the fear, and not the death—although all three were vividly present. What stands out to me most is the unity. Even as a foreigner in another country I had never felt so American and so proud. The United States can often seem less united and more fragmented—-a country separated by state lines, political opinions, religious stances, conflicting views on the sanctity of life and marriage, fiscal responsibility, and so much more. But on that day in 2001, in the midst of pain and tragedy, we set aside our individualism and truly became the UNITED States of America. That sense of unity was so strong that it translated across oceans and international borders. Even in the foreign country where I sat taking in the devastation of my homeland, the sense of unity and brotherhood was palpable.
Today is the anniversary of unspeakable pain and loss. It’s a day we wish we could undo. But on September 11th, our nation found unity. We reached through the confusion and fear and found each other.
May we be just as united today as we remember, and everyday.
God bless the United States of America.