- Posted May 5, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The Africa we don't see
This Is Paradise: An Irish Mother’s Grief, an African Village’s Plight and the Medical Clinic That Brought Fresh Hope to Both
The story of Irish guidance counselor Mags Riordan and the clinic she founded in Malawi in honor of a son who drowned there is at once inspiring and transfixing.
"We hear about the triumph of the human spirit a lot,” says best-selling author Ann Hood. “But Mags Riordan personifies the idea. In "This Is Paradise", Suzanne Strempek Shea takes on her extraordinary journey and shows us the power of a mother's love."
The Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic, in Cape Maclear, Malawi, was founded in 1999 to serve an area where there previously was one doctor for a population of 800,000. To date, its all-volunteer international staff of doctors and nurses have tended to 275,000 people who previously would have had no choice but to make an eleven-mile journey to the nearest hospital — a near impossibility in a community having only five automobiles and a population of 15,000. Unable to make the journey, villagers died regularly, sometimes from complications that began with even a slight infection. Though her father had been a physician, Mags had no prior interest in medicine, she simply knew that in a country with a life expectancy of 54, and with 14 percent of the population affected by AIDS/HIV, if she wanted to memorialize her son, healthcare would be the most transformative effort.
Billy actually was the third child Riordan lost over 26 years. Her first child — daughter Niamh — drowned at four months when the family car malfunctioned and rolled off a pier, and her second child, Luke, succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also at four months.
“I thought Mags’ story would make a strong magazine piece about motherhood, grief, healing, moving outside the comfort zone — how one person can change one part of our world,” says Shea, who met Riordan in 2004, as she was fundraising in the Irish vendors’ area of the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts.
A former reporter for The Springfield Newspapers and The Providence Journal who went on to write both fic-tion and nonfiction, Shea had her ears open as she helped a friend at a booth near where Riordan was selling jewelry and art from Cape Maclear, the proceeds going to then-new clinic.
“People would walk up to Mags’ booth, look at the photos of the village and the kids playing outside the clinic, and they’d ask what the display was about. Mags would start to say something like, ‘I built a clinic in the village where my son died,’ and many of the people would just walk away,” Shea remembers. “Others would approach, she’d repeat the same stark information. I wanted to know who this person was, what had happened to her son, and how does someone go about doing something like starting a clinic — how does one single person do something that? Apart from that, how does someone repeat a horrible truth like that, over and over, very often to disinterested ears? I got to know Mags well by asking a lot of questions over the years since, and feel everyone else needs to get to know her well, too. The first time he heard me talk about Mags, my husband, Tommy Shea, who always has the great idea, said, ‘That’s a book.’ Thanks again, Tommy Shea.”
Marianne Leone, author of "Jesse, A Mother’s Story", agrees, calling "This Is Paradise" “An important book not only for those who have suffered loss, but for anyone who seeks to understand how the act of giving assuages the singular torment of the grieving parent."
Shea followed Riordan on three continents, for more than 3½ years. The book is being published in the same year the clinic will celebrate its tenth anniversary.
“I’m delighted the story is getting out there, and I’m hoping that it will do some good for the Billy Riordan Me-morial Trust, and might get others thinking about what they can do in this world,” Shea says. “It’s not exaggerating to say Mags’ story is very inspiring. After the losses she’s endured, how does this woman get up every day, never mind get up and does what she does for others? It’s a story of how you don’t have to be a millionaire or an expert of some sort to start something that really can help.”
Shea’s previous books are the novels "Selling the Lite of Heaven"; "Hoopi Shoopi Donna"; "Lily of the Valley"; "Around Again"; and "Becoming Finola". Her memoirs are "Songs From a Lead-lined Room: Notes - High and Low - From My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation"; "Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore"; and "Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith". She co-wrote "140 Years of Providential Care: The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts" with Tommy Shea, and with author/historian Michele P. Barker. Her essay "Crafty Critters", about her lifelong love of knitting, a craft she learned in the “Crafty Critters” 4-H club of Palmer, Mass., back in childhood, is included in the recently released anthology "Knitting Yarns, Writers on Knitting", edited by Ann Hood.
Winner of the 2000 New England Book Award, which recognizes a literary body of work's contribution to the region, Shea began writing fiction in her spare time while working as a reporter. Her freelance journalism and fiction has appeared in magazines and newspapers including "Yankee", "The Bark", "Golf World", "The Boston Globe", "The Philadelphia Inquirer", "Organic Style" and "ESPN the Magazine". She was a regular contributor to "Obit" magazine.
Shea is a member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing and is writer-in-residence and director of the creative writing program at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Mass. She has taught in the MFA program at Emerson College and in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. Shea lives in Bondsville, Mass., with Tommy Shea, most recently the senior foreign editor at The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi.