Natalie Cole Biographer Reflects on the Singer's Thoughts on Death, 'Spirit of Optimism': Exclusive

Natalie Cole
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Natalie Cole during 12th Annual Race to Erase MS Themed "Rock & Royalty to Erase MS" - Show at The Westin Century Plaza Hotel & Spa in Century City, California, United States.

In the life of Natalie Cole, death -- especially early death -- was a recurrent theme. When she and I collaborated in 2010 on a memoir about her near-death experience a year earlier in which she received a kidney transplant, she was unflinchingly candid.

“I feel as though death has always been at my door,” she said. “My father died at age 45 in 1965, nine days after my fifteenth birthday. High on dope, I nearly died in a Las Vegas hotel fire when I was 32. The love of my life, my musical mentor and first husband Marvin Yancy, died of a stroke in 1985 when he was only 34. That same year, my dear cousin Janice, who had seen me through a successful rehab, died at age 33. Then we lost my wonderful brother Kelly when he was only 36. And in 2009, only hours before my transplant, the person I was closest to in all the world, my sister Cookie, died of cancer, at 64.”

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You’d think that such a litany of loss would lead to depression and fear. But in working with Natalie I detected no negativity. Hers was a spirit of optimism, courage and insatiable curiosity. It was her curiosity, in fact, that shaped the narrative of our writing project. She wanted to do more than explain how her years of intravenous drug led to hepatitis C, doing grave harm to her liver and eventually rendering her kidneys inoperative. More importantly, she insisted that we tell the story of her kidney donor, Jessica Karina, the young woman who, during childbirth, had died of preeclampsia. She was intent in showing how Jessica’s loving relationship to her older sister Patty paralleled the love between Natalie and her sister Cookie. As soon as she was well enough, Natalie sought out her donor family. In person, she offered them gratitude and friendship.

In interviewing the family, I learned a piece of the story that Natalie had neglected to tell me. It was Patty’s Aunt Esther, a nurse in the dialysis unit frequented by Natalie, who made the connection.

“I understand why people in dialysis are short-tempered and angry,” said Esther. “They’re afraid. But not Natalie. Natalie was serene. She had this amazingly cheerful disposition. No matter how uncomfortable the procedures, no matter how often she came for treatment -- and she usually came three or four times a week -- she was caring and polite to everyone. She wanted to know how I was doing, whether I was a having good day. She had such good heart that I couldn’t help but love her. So when I heard she needed a kidney around the same time of my niece’s death, I knew that Jessica, who was a giving woman, would be a perfect match for Natalie.”

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The match worked for several years. Natalie went back to work. Her appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in September of 2009 was a triumph. She recorded a hauntingly brilliant new album, Natalie Cole En Espanol, that received three Latin Grammy nominations. She toured widely, her voice as supple and soulful as ever. But while her bravery never failed, her body gave way on the last day of 2015. She was only 65.

When I spoke to her this past spring, she had intimations that something was amiss.

“It all goes back to the Hep C that was dormant for twenty-five years,” she said, “and then suddenly came alive. I could whine, 'Why me?' I denounced drugs. I got sober. I stayed sober. I found God. Well, I love God. And I know that God’s love isn’t about crying over the past or fretting about the future. God’s love lives in the present and presently I’m happy to accept everything that happened, is happening and will happen. Besides, I finally got to record in Spanish. Because Jessica Karina was Salvadoran, and because Jessica is now part of me, I feel closer than ever to Latino music. The first song I sang was one that I heard when I was eight. Dad did it on his Spanish album.”

She was referring to “Acercate Mas,” first recorded on Nat’s Cole Espanol album from 1958 and revisited as a father-daughter duet on Natalie Cole En Espanol.

“So many things have happened in my life,” she reflected, “but the death of my father remains the most painful. I adored him in a way that only a teenager girl can adore her dad. When he died, I fell apart. For years, I ran from his memory. I even ran from his music. When I inadvertently stumbled into a career, I was thrilled to learn that I could sing rhythm and blues. I loved singing soul. But it wasn’t until I found the courage to sing the music associated with my father that I found my deepest peace and greatest satisfaction. 'Acercate Mas' means come closer. The fact that even in Dad’s death we have grown closer brings me a beautiful comfort. It makes me think we ascribe too much severity to death. Spirit doesn’t die. Music doesn’t die. And the love that links spirit to music knows nothing about death. That spirit, that music, that love is eternal.”              

David Ritz is the coauthor, with Natalie Cole, of Love Brought Me Back: A Journey of Loss and Gain (Simon & Schuster, 2010)