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Natalie Cole's New Life

As her sister lay dying, Natalie Cole faced her own health crisis. She shares her unforgettable tale of grief, faith, and renewal.

Natalie Cole's New Life

— Photo by Kwaku Alston

By the time Natalie Cole got to the hospital late one afternoon in mid-May, her sister Cookie, who two weeks earlier had been diagnosed with lung cancer, had slipped into a coma. Natalie sat on the edge of Cookie's bed, rubbed her feet, and quietly urged her to fight. "I love you," she said. "Everything is going to be all right."

She fought back tears as she whispered in Cookie's ear, and the hospital monitors beeped steadily in reply.

Just hours earlier, Natalie herself had been hooked up to IVs, with a machine pulling the toxins from her blood that her failed kidneys could not. She was on a long waiting list for a donor kidney, but until a match was found, regular dialysis treatments were keeping her alive. When she received a call that spring day at her Beverly Hills treatment center about her sister's deteriorating condition, Natalie—a multiple-Grammy-winning singer and daughter of Nat King Cole—began yanking out the dialysis tubes. She rushed to her car and sped to Providence Tarzana Medical Center, in southern California's San Fernando Valley. But by the time she got to her sister—who was also her lifelong best friend—Cookie was unresponsive. "I was just devastated," Natalie says.

Natalie and other family members, including her only child, Robert Yancy, waited in Cookie's hospital room well into the evening. Natalie's cell phone, tucked away in her purse, rang again and again, but she ignored it. Finally, Yancy, a 32-year-old drummer, took a call on his cell. It was the transplant center at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He handed the phone to his mother.

"Ms. Cole," the woman said, "we think we've found a kidney for you."

"I can't talk to you right now," Natalie responded. "I've got a situation here. My sister's dying. I can't talk." She hung up, turned back to Cookie, and continued her vigil until midnight, when a nurse urged her to go home and rest.

Natalie Cole, 59, didn't think about that call during her drive home to Westwood. She didn't think about her own incurable hepatitis C, diagnosed the year before. She didn't think about the nausea and mind-bending fatigue the initial dialysis treatments had caused, nor the inconvenience of sandwiching singing gigs in between sessions hooked up to a machine. She didn't think about how many of her loved ones—Cookie among them—had offered to donate a kidney but proved not to be a match, nor did she think about the long odds of a healthy cadaver kidney becoming available.

On that lonely drive through the dark and starless San Fernando Valley, Natalie Cole didn't think about saving herself. Instead, she prayed for her sister. "God, you can make a miracle. You can bring her back. I know you can."

Cookie, whose real name is Carole, was actually Natalie's cousin, the daughter of her mother's sister. But when Cookie was orphaned at the age of four, Nat King Cole, the iconic jazz pianist and baritone, and his wife, Maria, adopted her. Natalie, or Sweetie, as her loved ones call her, was born about nine months later, in 1950, followed by brother Kelly, adopted in 1959, and twin sisters Casey and Timolin, who arrived in 1961.

Of all Nat King Cole's children, Natalie was, arguably, the one blessed most generously with his gift of music. Her voice was like honey, silky and smooth, and like her father, she made everyone in the audience feel she was singing just to them. As a kid, she performed a few times with her dad, and to this day she wonders whether he foresaw her success: hit singles (such as 1977's "I've Got Love on My Mind"), gold and platinum albums (her first was Inseparable, in 1975), accolades, and awards. Natalie credits her dad, who she says inspired by example rather than words, for much of it.

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