Last Friday afternoon, 1-year-old King Sims stumbled past framed photos of his brother, Elijah Sims. One shows Elijah when he was King’s age, and there’s a striking resemblance between the two. Another photo — taken not long before the 16-year-old Oak Park and River Forest High School student was gunned down in Austin last August — shows Elijah smiling.
“King just started to walk like four days ago,” said Sharita Sims-Galloway, King’s and Elijah’s mother. She pointed to the framed photos, which were on the wood floor, propped up against the television stand.
Sharita said King was several months old when Elijah was killed. The toddler, however, hasn’t forgotten his brother. King seems to hold the memory of Elijah in his ligaments.
“I never hung the photos up,” said Sharita. “I want to keep them low so King can see them. I would let him down to crawl, and he would crawl straight over to Elijah’s picture and just rub on his brother’s face. They spent a lot of time together. King knew his brother. He played with him. He loved him.”
Sharita, 38, said she’s working on a scrapbook — a “Book of Elijah” — for King, so that he’ll remember his older brother’s quirks and traits. There’s a picture that King will perhaps laugh at one day of Elijah asleep in his mother’s car, sucking his bottom lip.
“He sucked his bottom lip always, everywhere,” Sharita said, laughing. “He had to suck his lips to be able to go to sleep. That was his comfort.”
These days, Sharita’s comfort, outside of her close family members, has been the impromptu community of fellow Oak Parkers who, after showing up in the days, weeks and months after Elijah’s death, have never really left.
During an audience discussion of a play titled, Crossing Austin Boulevard, produced and performed by theater students last month at OPRF, Sharita said she never really felt like she belonged in Oak Park until her son died.
“Before, I just pretty much went to work and came home,” she said last week. “I’m more involved in things now and I’ve met a lot of different people. We’ve grown to have real relationships. I feel I have a really good support system, which I’m happy about because, unfortunately, I feel I didn’t have a lot of support from some members of my family afterward.”
Sharita said her biggest support system includes four sisters, two of whom live in other states, and her mother, who now lives in North Carolina. She also has two sons besides King and Elijah — 19 and 20 years old. It’s the wider orbit of extended relatives, aunts and uncles namely, that she said disappointed her.
“I have aunts and uncles who I would have expected to comfort me, or at least call and check on me, who never did that,” she said. “That really hurt my feelings because I was the one who always tried to do things for others in the family. But they say when the funeral is over, everybody’s going to disappear. That’s what it was.”
And the silence has, at times, been deafening, Sharita said. After Elijah’s death, she didn’t go back to her job as a nurse at a mental health clinic in Chicago because she didn’t want to feel singled out by the tragedy.
On the three-month anniversary of her son’s death, she looked up and realized she wasn’t sleeping or eating. She’d lost roughly 25 pounds. She had to be admitted to Riveredge Hospital for eight days after experiencing a mental breakdown, the culmination of troubles accumulating since the day she left Stroger Hospital, shell-shocked by the reality that her son wasn’t leaving with her.
“The morning my son died, I left the hospital and went straight to my primary care doctor because I knew I was going to need help,” she said.
She has since developed “really bad PTSD.” Regular grief counseling and walks with her Oak Park friends have helped ease the emotional turmoil, but the stress hasn’t released. She carries it like the stainless steel cremation jewelry she made for herself and her sons after receiving Elijah’s ashes (months before his death, during a spur-of-the-moment conversation with Sharita, Elijah had expressed a desire to be cremated).
“I’m afraid for everybody’s safety now. I’m just afraid,” she said. “I take different routes home from work. If there are too many cars in a parking lot in a store I’m looking to go into, I’ll just go to another one.”
Shot while biking home
On Monday, Aug. 29, 2016, Sharita was at home asleep when she got the phone call that Elijah had been shot. It was about five minutes after 10 p.m., which had long been Elijah’s weekend curfew. His school-day curfew was 9 p.m.
“It was hard for me because Elijah was going to turn 17 that Wednesday,” Sharita said. “That Monday was the first day of his 11 o’clock curfew. He was showing he was responsible and doing what he was supposed to do. He worked 35 hours a week during the summer hours [at Pete’s Fresh Market in Oak Park].”
One question that haunted Sharita in the weeks after Elijah’s death was how her son was planning to get home that night.
“I didn’t know until I was passing out flyers [in Austin] one day and a young man came up to me and told me, ‘Ms. Sims that wasn’t for your son. I saw it all.’ I didn’t talk to him because there were young men outside. I didn’t want to endanger him. He told me that Elijah was on a bike. And detectives later confirmed that the bike was in evidence. When he got shot in the head, my son was on a bike trying to come home.”
Since her son’s murder, Sharita said she’s encountered multiple people who witnessed the shooting but who have refused to come forward. Detectives, she said, have leads. She has their business cards. That about sums up the case’s status
One witness, she said, came forward to OPRF teacher Anthony Clark. That person, however, would not go to police.
“I believe that oftentimes crimes go unsolved because of personal relationships witnesses share with offenders, out of fear of being harmed, or fractured community relationships with law enforcement,” said Clark in an email statement.
Clark helped setup a GoFundMe campaign, called the “Elijah Sims Memorial Reward Fund,” in order to “support the police department’s efforts in reaching justice,” according to the campaign’s web page.
Sharita said the money will be used to do the kind of things that the government should be doing, such as funding relocation efforts and helping with witnesses’ living expenses.
“We are sending a message that Elijah’s life mattered,” wrote Clark, “that our communities will not let fear or relationships prevent us from working together to solve this crime. Our communities cannot wait for others to save us; we have to work with each other to truly reach change.”
Meanwhile, Sharita is also advocating for the passage of legislation, which she calls ‘Elijah’s Bill,’ that would hold accountable the parents of young people — oftentimes teenagers — who kill.
‘Everything reminds me of him’
King was in his playpen as Sharita pondered the toddler’s future, considering what happened to his older brother, who was killed during a visit to the neighborhood where he had grown up and had developed deep friendships. She hadn’t let her fear consume her ability to contextualize.
King, she said, won’t have those Austin bonds and thus no reason to return to the neighborhood at night to visit friends. But the comfort this knowledge provides is undergirded by all kinds of problems that Sharita is beginning to unravel.
She’s joined a community organization she helped form with Clark that includes residents of both Oak Park and Austin. They meet to explore ways they can address the violence that happens disproportionately on the West Side, but that, lately, has also been happening in Oak Park.
And in the future, Sharita said, a still-to-be-formed Elijah Sims Foundation will involve community outreach in Austin, specifically, where help is needed most. One of Sharita’s ripening dreams, among a field of them, is to have something unusual to Austin (“maybe an ice-skating park”) dedicated in Elijah’s honor.
In the meantime, as they wait for the monuments to materialize, the family passes the memories of Elijah on to King, who has also inherited his mother’s ambitions.
“My goal was to make sure all my boys graduated high school because I didn’t,” she said.
In her winding odyssey to fulfill that goal, she sent her sons to numerous schools in the city that would both provide them with a sound education and a respite from the violence, but the violence always seemed to be with them. One day, her 19-year-old was robbed at gunpoint.
Eventually, she sent her boys to live with their father in Memphis before she settled in Oak Park and they returned to live with her, enrolling at OPRF.
“His first week at that school, Elijah came home and said, ‘Ma, it’s this girl at that school. Her name is Tayanna Norman. Ma, she is a good girl.’ He told me that he wrote her letters asking to be her boyfriend,” Sharita recalled.
“We were in math class together and I didn’t notice until he snatched my phone and added me on Facebook,” said Norman, who was supposed to go to prom with Elijah this year. Instead, she said, Elijah’s 19-year-old brother will take her.
“That’s when you noticed that beautiful smile? And them eyes?” Elijah’s favorite aunt, Shawanda Bell, asked Norman. They were seated across from Sharita, feet away from Elijah’s photo, their voices within whispering distance of King’s playpen, his little kingdom.
“Yep,” said Norman, blushing at the recollection.
“He practiced that smile,” said Bell, laughing, as Elijah’s relatives remembered his buoyant mischief.
“Some days, when I would get out the car, he would scare me,” said Sharita. “He’d jump from behind the car. He was really silly. He was really a character. Everything reminds me of him. Everything.”
Twenty-year-old Isaiah Sims, Sharita’s oldest child, said he feels the need to fill that void left by his younger brother.
“I just go through the day, smile and do it over again,” Isaiah said. “Once I come home, I tell jokes to my mom. … Yeah, I smile all the time. That’s all we can do.”
Anyone interested in donating to the Elijah Sims Memorial Fund can visit: https://www.gofundme.com/elijah-sims-memorial-reward-fund.