From Inglewood to fatherhood … by way of Mississippi

Courtesy of Simba

EDITOR’S NOTE:  In a continual salute to fathers, The Mississippi Link shares one father’s story on the importance of being in his child’s life.

As I go through the streets of Mississippi, the first thing I’m asked when I start talking is, “Where are you from?”  I answer, “Inglewood.”  Then they ask, “As in California?” “Yeah, Cali.”  The next question is, “Why did you move to Mississippi?”  My answer is always the same.  I moved here to be a part of my child’s life.  My daughter was born in Los Angeles, and lived there the first years of her life.  After her mother and I separated, she decided it would be best to move closer to her family in Mississippi.  I wasn’t excited about the idea, but I had no court order or legal agreement that kept her in Los Angeles, so I had to respect her decision. 


My daughter was five, when one of the nation’s top art schools awarded me a thirty thousand dollar scholarship for a short film I produced and directed.  I was faced with a decision—follow my dream of becoming a filmmaker…or follow my child.  I chose my dream, and justified it by thinking I was making a sacrifice for her future.  I flew into New Orleans and drove three hours to Mississippi to see her.  I sent for her during the holidays and in the summer time, but this wasn’t enough.  After a few years of struggling in film school, when I could no longer afford the trips, it became clear that my daughter was gone.  I was no longer a part of her life.


I was torn between her absences and my lifetime ambitions.  I could see the Hollywood sign from my living room window.  My friends at the time were writing and directing major movies, and acting in national TV commercials.   I was an assistant story editor on one of Disney’s reality shows and writing my own screenplay, yet I could never figure out the theme of my own story.  I could taste my dream, yet I was full of unhappiness.  Each day, something died just a little more inside me.


This was the paradox of my life.  My body was in California, yet my heart was in Mississippi.   Whenever I saw a man with his child, I found happiness…if just for that moment.  I would see images of my daughter in my head.  Her smile.  Her laugh.  Her everything.   During each phone call with my daughter I would sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider.  That was the song that always made her laugh.  When I hung up, I fought back the tears, only to quietly surrender to that moment.  I had some good friends around me, yet I felt so alone.


I kept reminding myself that I was making a sacrifice for the long run—that one day I would get that big break for that major deal.  However, there was one problem; my child was growing by the day, and I was missing her life by the hour.  The pain was greater than any fight I had ever experienced.   I was fighting with myself, because I was not being the man I was supposed to be.  I was fighting with myself, because I was not providing for her like I was supposed to.  I was fighting with myself, because whether I wanted to believe it or not—I was lying to myself.


Then the hour arrived when I came to a realization—I knew nothing about the word sacrifice.  I found myself in Oakland California, sitting at my father’s bedside—his deathbed.   He was a man who had been absent all my life.  He had suffered from a diabetic seizure and was brain-dead.  I was his only son, so I was called to make the decision if he should live or die.  I chose life. 


I shaved his face daily, then weekly, and in those quiet moments I talked to my father like I had never done before.  Everything that was in my heart…I said.  He never responded, but from time to time, I felt he heard me.  I was angry and hurt.  I loved him, but hated who he was not.  He was my father, but he had never been my Dad.  He never saw me play basketball, he never taught me how to fight, he never came to one graduation…yet I had to come to terms with my anger and ask God for forgiveness. 


It was difficult at first because I had to forgive myself for all my anger before I could forgive my father.  Then one morning, during the third month after one of our conversations—I remember so clearly—I sat there and tears ran down my face, penetrating my skin, down into the depths of my soul.  My spirit was being cleansed, and I had truly forgiven.  And, so it began…I left the room for just a moment, and when I returned, he had quietly passed. 


It was in that brief moment that I realized, I could not, and would not, miss another day of my child’s life.  I buried my father, returned to Los Angeles, sold everything in my small studio, and said goodbye to my family and friends.  I knew no one in the state of Mississippi.  I had no job to go to, only the faith that God was with me, and I was following His direction.


I left on a Friday and called my daughter and told her I would see her that Monday.  I drove three straight days, stopping only for gas and sleep.  I arrived with just the cash in my pocket, camera equipment, a writing journal, and whatever would fit in my truck.  My child was eleven.  I made arrangements with her mother to pick her up.  I stood at the bus as she came out of class.  She saw me first and came running into my arms.  I cannot express in words how I felt.  My purpose became very clear.


It would take the next five years to rebuild my life.  I sold cars at a dealership, as I searched the TV studios for employment.  I was homeless for just over a year, yet I was there to take my daughter to school everyday without tardiness.  To create contacts, I placed my best picture on my business card, and handed them out all over the city as a marketing tool.  I discreetly slept in my truck on the back lot of the dealership.  I worked from eight to eight, Monday through Saturday.  In the evenings I spent my time in hotel’s lobbies, utilizing the business center to write.  I knew at some point my story must be told.  I showered at the gym, and I kept my clothes pressed in the lockers.  On Sundays, my daughter and I went to church, the bookstore, and the movies.  This was our routine.


Nothing would stop me from seeing my child.  However, during the coldest winter that Mississippi would see—sometimes reaching thirty below zero—when rain pounded my rooftop like small stones tossed into an empty can—when I barely had gas money to keep the engine running for heat, or I felt the loneliness of being three thousand miles away from home.  I won’t lie—those were some of the hardest nights of my life.  Often I cried myself to sleep.  I made friends, but none with whom I wanted to share my burden.  My mom called often to remind me of my faith.  I could almost see her tears as she listened to me saying everything was all right.  Many times she wanted to come to my rescue, but she understood this was a journey I had to endure alone.  With strength and conviction she would say, “In your darkest hour, He will never leave you or forsake you.” 


As I endured my conditions, I was met with no reward.  It was still a challenge to be a part of my child’s life.  I wasn’t added to the school emergency cards, yet I met with all her teachers.  I wasn’t informed about doctor’s appointments, yet I provided her insurance.  I was challenged on most decisions regarding her life, and all I wanted to do was be a part of her life.  I was facing my responsibility, yet I felt like an outsider.  


I began to understand the word sacrifice, and yet I still wanted to do something bigger.  I wanted my child to be proud of who I was.  I was proud of who I was becoming.  I followed a lifetime goal of military training by joining the Air Force National Guard.  I understood at thirty-three what it would do for my character.  I trained for nine months and I was challenged every second. When fatigue hit my body, or stress filled my spirit, I depended on my faith and the image of my child to keep me going.  I was made the example and elected dorm chief.  I can only thank God for answering the quiet prayers that kept me within a spirit of humility.   


When I returned to Mississippi from basic training, I rented an apartment just two blocks from my daughter.  Seven days later, I was in court for child support and visitation.  I requested joint-custody, but was denied.  The dealership welcomed me back, however my stay could not be long.  My creativity could no longer be sequestered.  I was offered a photography position at one of Mississippi’s largest studios, but during the recession, the studio was forced to shut down.  I found myself unemployed for almost a year.  With help from family who believed in me, I purchased all the equipment the studio would sell.  I took another leap of faith.  


My lights were off, but my rent was paid, and my equipment kept me fed.  I worked my photography business, with contacts I had made over the years.  I successfully negotiated a contract with the newly built Jackson Convention Complex.  I am their exclusive photographer.  This kept me in the circle of Jackson’s elite.  My images reached over 20,000 people.  I submitted photography and wrote film reviews for local papers.  I was even given my own guest column entitled: Weekend with Simba Sims.  In December of 2009, I joined the faculty of Antonelli College of Jackson as Lead Instructor of Photography and Digital Media.  I now train over thirty inspiring student photographers and filmmakers.  Mississippi has been good to me, allowing me to share my talents. 


My daughter is now seventeen and this journey has taken six years.   I have been a part of her wonder years—years that she will never wonder where her Daddy was!  I spend every weekend I can with my child.  I’ve been there for her graduations, her teacher conferences, her sports events, and all things in between.  Our next plan is college.  I don’t claim to be the perfect father, or even the perfect man.  I still make mistakes, however the difference now is my accountability.  At times, I just gaze at my child.  She asks, “Why are you staring at me Daddy?”  I always answer the same, “I am just happy to be a part of your life.”


Who do we stand for, if not for our children?  I have traveled three thousand miles and have seen men who won’t travel three.  I have heard women say in causal conversation, “He will never see his child again.”  I have watched grown men cry who would gladly trade their riches for an hour with their children.  I have watched my mother, and other mothers, struggle because the father refuses to take responsibility.  MEN…if you hear my words and are touched by this story, STAND UP!  STAND UP for who we are today.  STAND UP for who your children will be tomorrow.  STAND UP…AND BE A MAN!


After almost six years on my journey, I have recently returned home and was reminded of all those who love me.   I write to say thank you to all my friends and family who have supported my decision.  As a parent, I now understand struggle, service, and sacrifice.  I write for the sacrifices of both mothers and fathers!  I write for those who may need inspiration!  I now write my film with a clear theme.  This is my pursuit of happiness:  From Inglewood…to Fatherhood…by way of Mississippi.


My name is Simba Sims…and this is my story…            

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