In 1991, when she performed a series of outdoor concerts that included her "Unforgettable" duet with her long-deceased father (thanks to innovative film and audio splicing ), she swears that a butterfly would routinely fly across the stage. Natalie believes the butterflies, which she loves, were sent by her dad, one of the many angels in her life whom she references in her 2000 autobiography, "Angel on My Shoulder."
Natalie—and the world—lost her father when she was only 15; a heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45. For years she struggled with the loss, as well as a difficult relationship with a mother she viewed as emotionally distant. After finishing college, while playing local clubs, she accepted a boyfriend's invitation to try heroin—and by the age of 23 was mainlining. In 1976, just before winning her first Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance for "This Will Be," she quit her heroin habit cold turkey, and she went on to marry gospel musician Marvin Yancy and give birth to Robbie. But in 1984, after divorcing Yancy (a Baptist minister who died suddenly of a stroke the following year), she spent several months in Hazelden rehab center to treat an all-consuming addiction to crack cocaine. Natalie attributes her hard-won sobriety to her religious faith (though raised Episcopalian, she became a Baptist in her mid-20s). But it took more than that to restore all she had lost. The music industry showed little enthusiasm for her comeback efforts, and she went from being a headliner to playing lounge acts in places such as Las Vegas. In 1989 Natalie got married a second time, to record producer André Fischer, but they split in 1997; their divorce papers indicated he was abusive. Her brother, Kelly, who came out of the closet at age 19, died of HIV-related causes in 1995. And in 2000 Natalie wed once again, this time to Kenneth Dupree, a Baptist bishop from Nashville. Natalie ended the marriage less than three years later because, she says, "I had problems with the way this man was conducting his life."
For the next few years Natalie concentrated on her music, making plans for a follow-up to her multiplatinum album of her father's standards. Early in 2008 she recorded "Still Unforgettable." She was happily single, spending time with friends and family. Her life was finally back on track—or so it seemed.
In the early-morning hours of May 19, 2009, Natalie arrived at her high-rise condominium, slipped into her pajamas, and crawled into bed. At 3:00 A.M. the phone rang. It was the nurse from the Tarzana hospital, who said things weren't looking good for Cookie. Natalie pulled a jogging suit over her PJs and raced back to the hospital. "When I got there, Cookie's holding on," she says. "I'm thinking God's going to take care of everything."
Just then, Natalie's cell phone buzzed. It was the woman from the transplant unit again, giving Natalie one more chance: "We know you're dealing with a situation in your family, but we have a kidney that's a match, and we really need you to get here by 6:00 A.M."
Natalie said, "I'll call you back."
She looked around the waiting room, where Robbie as well as Cookie's husband, John, and their three children had gathered. "I was in dire straits," she says. "It was a really bad situation, as far as I was concerned. Because everybody was so in shock about Cookie, they didn't have real good sense." Numbly, they each told Natalie she should go. But she needed more nudging. She called her longtime business manager, Howard Grossman. Waking him out of a sound sleep, Natalie updated him on Cookie's situation and said, "They've got a match for my kidney; what shall I do?"
"Go for it," Grossman responded.
She turned to her family. "They don't wait to do this operation," she said.
"It was crazy, so crazy, to think that my mother was going to get a kidney while her sister is down and out, on life support," says Robbie. "But it was something she had to do."