But thinking through the immensity of it all—how she received the gift of life, in the wake of such loss—has helped. Natalie now sees her donor as one of her "angels," sent to pull her out of a dire situation. Although privacy laws restrict the release of details about donors, Natalie knows this: she was a thirtysomething, healthy female who died suddenly, and her family, aware of Natalie's need, directed the kidney to her. "I just find it extraordinary that they would have said my name," Natalie says, her voice breaking. "To have your life saved by someone you don't even know—oh, God. God bless them.
"When I look back, I can see the hand that has plucked me out of or put me into special situations. I don't totally understand it. I know that God has had my back, even when I was screwing up. And I now know he has a plan for me."
Just over two months after her surgery, Natalie Cole, looking fit and youthful in a strapless sundress, sits in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel and tells the story of her transplant for the first time. She wears her dark hair short; it fell out when she was on interferon, and when it began to grow back, she decided she liked it in a pixie style. Yes, absolutely, she says, she is ready to start a new chapter in her life, and her easy smile shows it. "I didn't know that I could feel this good again."
Though she has shown no signs of kidney rejection, she will have to take immunosuppressants for the rest of her life. She'll also be routinely monitored for symptoms of hepatitis C. "But hers has been as uncomplicated a course as we've ever seen," says Mittleman, who spoke at Natalie's request. "I'm optimistic that she's going to have an improved state of health from here on."
So what about all those plans that she believes someone has for her? First off, Natalie says, she would like to thank the family of her donor in person. "I have written them a letter and would love to meet them," she says, "whenever they're ready."
In the meantime Natalie wants to advocate for kidney research and organ donation. "We are born with two kidneys and only need one to survive," she says. "Maybe God gave us the other one so that we could give it away." While the hardships she's endured have toughened her in some ways, they've softened her in others, she says: "You get sick, and then you get well, and if you don't have more compassion for human beings after, then something's definitely wrong."
She's also cherishing time with her circle of loved ones. In August she spent a weekend in Santa Barbara with her twin sisters, and she and Engelstein are planning an end-of-the-year getaway to Hawaii. She's even considering romance again. "I believe there's someone out there who will treat me like a princess, but it has to be the right person—because they've got egos, and I'm not a little wallflower," she says.
And she's ready to show her fans that she's back. Record producer David Foster was the first person in the studio with Natalie post-transplant. "She walked up to the mike and just sang her ass off," he says. "She nailed it. I told her, ' You should have a kidney transplant more often.' "
When we last spoke to her, Natalie was about to kick off a comeback tour with a September 9 concert at the Hollywood Bowl. "I'm still singing great," she says. "I think that's a miracle." And she expects more miracles to come. As she climbs behind the wheel of her black Mercedes, after a few hours of reliving her amazing encounter with life and death, Natalie Cole says quietly, "Those angels on my shoulder who've been there all along—now I know that my sister Cookie is one of them."
Entertainment editor at large Meg Grant wrote about Ron Howard in the July & August issue.