Most of the events that Charles Tillman hosts in conjunction with his Cornerstone Foundation benefit sick children, but a June 7 function at the Hilton Chicago was different.
The sixth annual TendHER Heart Luncheon honored more than 150 moms of critically and chronically ill kids for the sacrifices they make caring for their children. The luncheon gives the mothers a chance to bond, commiserate and compare notes with others in similar situations.
“It’s very therapeutic for these moms to get together in one room and talk and open up, especially for the moms who are currently going through their struggle or their situation,” Tillman said. “They get to hear other moms talk about how they got through it and what they did. So the goal really is that those moms with kids in the hospital can get something from that. They may say, ‘OK, they did this, so let’s see if that works for me.’”
Tillman, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback who’s entering his 12th season with the Chicago Bears, empathizes with parents of sick children. In 2008, Room 218 in Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago became his second home for months after his three-month-old daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a rare heart ailment and underwent a life-saving heart transplant.
Going through that experience with his wife, Jackie, made Tillman realize the need for an event such as the TendHER Heart Luncheon where moms of sick kids can lean on each other.
“I think one of the biggest things they get out of it is knowing that they’re not alone,” Tillman said. “Even Jackie said, ‘I feel like it was my fault. I feel alone. I blame myself.’
“These moms get up there and tell their stories, and a lot of the stories are very similar. The child gets sick as an infant and the mom wonders, ‘Maybe it was my pregnancy, maybe I did something wrong.’ They blame themselves and they feel alone.
“At the luncheon the moms get the satisfaction of just talking. They open up and they vent. It’s like a weight off their shoulders. All the moms there feel it. They get it. They understand.”
The TendHER Heart Luncheon is emotional for Tillman as well. He posed for a photo with a girl suffering from cancer at last year’s event and was told by her mother at this year’s gathering that the girl had recently passed away.
“It’s really sad,” Tillman said. “I remember meeting her and taking a picture with her, and now she’s gone. You don’t know what to say except for just, ‘I’m sorry. Give me a hug.’
“I sympathize with all the moms and I know everything that they have gone through except the ones who have lost a kid. My kid did not die, so I don’t know what that’s like. But that initial phone call, that rushing them to the hospital, I know that feeling.”
The moms aren’t the only ones who speak at the luncheon. Tillman also stands up and shares his story. On one occasion, a mother thanked him for helping her understand how her husband was feeling while dealing with their child’s illness.
“Your wife marries you for security and protection, and I felt helpless as a man [when Tiana was sick],” Tillman said. “This one mom stopped me and said her husband had said the same thing but she couldn’t understand why he felt that way.
“I was up there talking about how as a man we want to fix things. That’s what we do; that’s how God made us. She said, ‘Thank you so much, I needed to hear that from you. My husband’s been telling me that, but now I truly get it.’”