Story and Photo By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
In 1950, there wasn’t much chance of survival for a baby born more than three months prematurely, but Suzie Yost has been laughing at those kinds of odds her entire life.
On Aug. 22, 1950, when she came bursting into the world as a tiny bundle of dynamite, she weighed less than 1 pound, 9 ounces.
“I know that was my weight when I was four weeks old, but I don’t know what I weighed when I was born,” said Yost, now 68 and a parishioner at St. Dominic Parish in Lakeview.
Yost’s survival after such a premature birth was so rare in those days that she made all the papers.
“They said I was a ‘miracle’ baby,” Yost said. “I couldn’t come home until my due date, which was Nov. 28. When I did, my parents couldn’t let anybody in the house for three more months, and they had to keep the house at a certain temperature. Every day at 3 o’clock, my mom would have a viewing, and all the neighbors and everybody else would line up at the window so they could see me.”
It wasn’t long after when doctors reached a sobering diagnosis. The tiny oxygen mask placed over the preemie’s face in the neonatal ward actually had delivered too much oxygen, damaging Suzie’s optic nerves. She would never be able to see.
At some point, John and Sylvia Yost, her parents, made a firm decision. They would raise their child to be as independent as possible.
“I just remember wanting to ride my bike,” Yost said, smiling.
With her father nearby, Suzie took off on her bicycle with the training wheels, and the rush of wind through her hair prompted her eventually to ask her parents to take them off so she could really fly. Her dad did.
“Oh, they never stopped me from doing anything,” Yost said. “I would ride up and down the sidewalk on Weiblen Street. My mom and dad would be with me until I got good, and then I was going on my own.
“I have what they call good ‘echo location,’ where you hear things like the trees. I found out that when I passed certain trees, I would say, ‘I’m passing this house, now I’m passing my house, I’m passing my na-nan’s house.’ My sense of hearing is really keen. I had a game. My great aunt lived next door to us. I knew exactly where to turn, where our driveway was, and then I’d open her gate, ride through her yard, out her driveway and go around like that. I had a few stitches, here and there. I just did all that.”
In first grade at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on Annunciation Street, which had a resource class for blind students, Yost learned Braille. She became proficient both on a Braille typewriter (for her study notes) and on a portable Royal typewriter (for handling homework assignments and taking tests).
She went to McMain Junior High and then graduated fifth in her class of 540 students at Fortier High School, all the time being mainstreamed. Then it was on to Loyola University, where she earned a degree in education, with a minor in English and social studies, thinking she would eventually become a teacher.
She wound up teaching, in a sense, as a vocational rehab counselor for the state for 33 years, helping blind people with far less self-confidence make the leap of faith that they could actually do things they never thought possible.
Because that’s what her mom and dad told her she could do.
At their small vacation home in Clermont Harbor, Mississippi, she learned to swim. When she was 15, she wanted to do something more adventurous than feel the wind blowing through her hair while riding her tandem bike with friends or roller skating.
“In 1965, my parents bought a Mustang convertible, and my dad took me out on a back road and let me drive the car,” Yost said.
The road was deserted. Yost had her foot on the accelerator, and her father placed his hands along with hers on the steering wheel.
“He wanted me to get that experience,” Yost recalled. “When we went fishing, he would let me drive the boat, and he’d pick up the crab traps. They didn’t stop me. I had blind friends, and a lot of their parents stopped them from doing anything. They just didn’t turn out independent, like I am. Whatever challenges there were, I was determined to conquer them.”
At Loyola, as soon as Yost got her class schedule each semester, her dad would take her through her paces.
“My dad was great at showing me how to find the buildings,” Yost said. “We’d walk through it. We’d just learn it.”
Personal Braille hymn book
Since 2017, Yost has sung soprano in the adult choir at St. Dominic at the 12:15 p.m. Sunday Mass. She has two, three-inch binders of hymn lyrics in Braille, and she simply hears and remembers the melody.
“I love music, so I pick it up easily,” she says.
She used to spend her days as a teen browsing in Harry Connick Sr.’s record store and, with his permission, spinning 45s. “I never wanted to go home,” she said.
At daily Mass, she can be found in her fifth pew, just to the left of the main aisle. Yost enters the massive church through the side door on Vicksburg Street, using her cane and sweeping it in an arc from left to right, to find the appropriate landmarks.
“I can feel how big the church is,” Yost said.
She had a guide dog once – her name was Whisker – but that lasted only a few months. Whisker had to be trained, at Communion time, not to bolt up the center aisle to avoid the two lines.
“She would just zip past all those people going to Communion, and I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, I just got Whisker, and she thinks she can pass everybody up,’” Yost said. “I was actually much more comfortable with my cane.”
Yost has read the Scripture of Jesus healing the blind man, and she has never once asked for that deliverance.
“No, no, no,” she said. “What it is, it is. The only big thing I would love to do is to be able to drive. I have figured out ways that I can accomplish anything else. I’ve never been angry at God. I’ve sometimes been bored, because I want to get out and go. I live near West End, and it’s so busy all the time with all those cars, and I’m sitting at home. I tell people, ‘Everybody’s got somewhere to go but me.’ I’m not a homebody.”
Rebuilding; keeping the faith
After Katrina, she had to repair three houses – her own, her father’s and a rental home – by herself.
“I prayed a lot,” she said. “My dad really couldn’t help because he was in and out of a nursing home. It was mind-boggling. I had rip-off contractors just like everyone else. One guy told me, ‘All the electrical work is finished,’ and then I went back to the house and wires were hanging out of the wall with no boxes. Yeah, he finished it all right. I found an attorney.”
But she did forgive the contractor for trespassing against her, right? “Yeah, I did, but I did win,” Yost said.
Among Yost’s favorite hymns are “Be Not Afraid,” “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”
“My faith is so important to me,” Yost said. “You know, God is just everything. God is so good and has blessed me with so much. I’m just always thankful.”
Yost also is a huge Saints fan. During the Archie Manning days, she had season tickets and brought her radio with her to watch the games.
After the egregious officiating error in the NFC Championship Game that cost the Saints a spot in the Super Bowl, Yost said she got a kick out of how fans reacted – by showing up at a French Quarter parade on Super Bowl Sunday dressed as NFL officials with striped shirts, Coke-bottle glasses and white guide canes.
“That’s New Orleans for you,” Yost said. “We can make a party out of anything.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.