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I AM AMAZED that I am alive.
Given the Crazy way that I lived my life, the chances I took, and the dangers I brought on, I should not be here. And yet, at age sixty, I sit at my desk, healthy and energetic, as I prepare to tell the remarkable story of these past two years.
I feel compelled to tell you this story because I believe that it will illustrate the goodness of a living God. I also tell it because I still need to process what happened to me and my sister, and to Jessica and Patty.
I see this story as the orchestration of four sisters whose lives became intertwined in improbable and seemingly impossible ways.
It is a story of loss and gain.
I lost a loving sister named Cooke (pronounced "Cookie").
Patty lost a loving sister named Jessica.
Patty's loss gained me my life.
Cooke's spirit inspired my life, just as Jessica's shining spirit inspired Patty.
We are all joined together—not just Natalie, Cooke, Jessica, and Patty, but all humankind. Our dramas may seem separate, but my drama has brought me to an inescapable conclusion: that we are deeply and permanently connected.
Those connections are exquisite multifaceted pieces, like gems in a mosaic. When we study each piece, we are enthralled. When we step back to see the mosaic in its entirety—the big picture of our lives—we are awestruck.
I am awestruck. I am aware that it is only with God's grace that I am alive and able to tell this story.
© 2010 Natalie Cole
New Year's Eve, 2007
I'M NO SQUARE—my friends will tell you that—and I love to party, but my favorite way to party on New Year's Eve is church, especially Faithful Central, the praise-and-worship congregation that took over the Forum, former home of the Los Angeles Lakers.
My whole CRew accompanied me. My girlfriends Benita and Tammy were there, and so was my son, Robbie, who, at age thirty, showed, among other talents, his late father's great gift for preaching. My aunt Marie and uncle Kearney were also there, along with my friend Quaford, my brother from another mother.
I usually attend the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in South Central L.A., a smaller and more intimate congregation, but on this night I wanted to experience the full-tilt gospel joy, the higher-than-high energy of Kurt Carr's magnificent choir, the heart-stopping rhythms and spine-tingling riffs of saCRed singing. Along with thousands of fellow believers, I wanted to wave my arms and stomp my feet, feel that Holy Ghost power, and thank God for this past year and the year ahead, a year filled with so many possibilities and so much promise. After the services, I arrived back home in a state of spiritual renewal. I could not have been happier.
A good deal of my happiness came from the record I was making, Still Unforgettable, a follow-up to Unforgettable ... with Love, the multi-Grammy-winning record that revitalized my career in 1990. Unforgettable ... with Love was a beautiful and magical reunion with my father, who had died at age forty-six in 1965, nine days after my fifteenth birthday.
I've always adored my father's music, but ever since I'd started singing, whether it was while I was still a student at the University of Massachusetts or professionally, I avoided Dad's material. I was determined to CReate my own identity. My first hits, in fact, were straight-up rhythm and blues. My voice was compared to Aretha Franklin's, though, for my money, no one compares to Aretha. By the time I approached my forties, I had the self-assurance to approach all the genres I love so deeply: R & B, rock, jazz, and pop. My dad bridged jazz and pop with such aplomb that, even with my newfound confidence, I was hesitant. But I did it, and the result changed my musical life. Unforgettable ... with Love sold some fourteen million copies.
Returning to the Unforgettable concept brought back the thrill of reuniting with my father in the recording studio. On the original album, through the mirACLe of modern engineering, I had sung with him on the title track. This time I wanted to try a different kind of song, not as melancholy as "Unforgettable," but upbeat and whimsical. So I chose "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." What could be sweeter?
Happily, my mind was on music. After two and a half unsuccessful marriages—two and a half because the third had recently ended in an annulment—romance was a distant concept. I was more than content to concentrate on family, friends, and career.
Following some preliminary work on the record in January, I scheduled a routine doctor's appointment in early February. I had a hernia that required minor surgery. So I went to my general practitioner, Dr. Maurice Levy, for blood work before the operation. He said he'd call only if there were any problems.
I was in the recording studio when, in fact, he did call.
"Natalie," he said. "Your blood's not normal. I want you to see a kidney specialist."
"Is it serious?"
"Can't tell at this point. But let's take every precaution."
I went to see the kidney specialist, Dr. Joel Mittleman, to whom I will be forever indebted. He took additional tests. When he called with the results, he sounded worried.
"It's hepatitis. You need to see a liver specialist."
I took a deep breath and called my sister Cooke, my best friend.
"I have hepatitis," I said.
"Which kind?" asked Cooke, who was five years older than me and, as far as I'm concerned, knowledgeable about—well, just about everything. A great believer in homeopathy, Cooke advocated natural remedies.
"He didn't say what kind," I answered.
"Well, hepatitis comes in different flavors."
"He didn't say anything about chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry," I said, trying to keep things light.
"You'll be fine, Sweetie," Cooke assured me, using my family nickname. "Just call me after you see the liver man."
The liver man was Dr. Graham Woolf. I gave more blood, and he took more tests. He was a great guy—handsome and kind. But even with those wonderful qualities, he did not have good news. I sat in his office with that same lump in my throat. My stomach was doing flip-flops.
Fortunately, my close friends Benita Hill Johnson and Tammy Engelstein were with me. It's bad enough to receive bad news. It's really bad when it comes from a doctor. I was deeply grateful for the presence of two of my dearest friends.
Dr. Woolf didn't beat around the bush. "Miss Cole," he said, "you have hepatitis C."
My heart sank. Hep C is a serious liver infection.
"How did I contract it?"
"It could have been a blood transfusion. A tattoo. Or a drug injection. Hepatitis C is not uncommon among intravenous drug users."
"I was an intravenous drug user," I said. "But it's been twenty-five-plus years."
"Back then," asked Dr. Woolf, "did you share needles with others?"
"All the time. I was on heroin."
"That might explain it."
"But, Doctor, I've been clean and sober ever since."
"The virus can remain dormant in your body for decades. Its manifestation is highly unpredictable. You never know when or if it's going to assault your liver."
"And all because of something I did a lifetime ago?"
"I'm afraid so."
I closed my eyes. I really didn't want to hear what I was hearing. I didn't want to know about it. Didn't want to accept it. Didn't want to see a scene that, for a few seconds, was playing out in my mind.
1975. I was twenty-five and had recorded my first album in Chicago. The initial single, "This Will Be (an Everlasting Love)," was starting to climb the charts. I had a small following from my club dates but was hardly a star. I was, in fact, a junkie. I had come to New York City to score dope. I was running up to Harlem to buy heroin. I wanted one thing and one thing only—the feeling I got when the shit shot through my veins. I was going to get it, no matter what. Billy Strayhorn said the A train is the quickest way to get to Harlem, so I took the A train. Jumped off at 125th Street and walked over to a run-down building.
I could walk the streets of Harlem undisturbed. I was comfortable in that neighborhood. I didn't have buddies up there, but people knew me as Nat's daughter. People welcomed me. Even the police knew who I was.
"Hey, Natalie, how you doin', baby?" an older man greeted me.
"Lookin' good, mama," said a young cat. "Lookin' real good."
Even as a junkie, I took pride in my appearance. I looked like I was ready to shop at Saks. I was obviously overdressed for an appointment with the dope man.
The dope man lived in a nasty brick building where he sold his wares to whoever had the bread. I had the bread and the nerve to walk down those dark hallways, filled with graffiti and stinking of urine, until I reached his apartment and loudly knocked.
"It's Natalie," I said.
"Good God almighty, you back already?"
And with that, the dope man opened the door, smiled, and invited me in.
A few minutes later, I floated out. On the radio from someone's porch in Harlem, I heard the strains of "This Will Be (an Everlasting Love)." All I could think of was an everlasting high.
"Natalie, I know this is difficult news for you to hear," said Dr. Woolf, taking me out of my flashback, "but treatment will be needed."
"My brother, Kelly, took interferon when he was sick with AIDS. It has devastating side effects, doesn't it?"
"The side effects are serious, but the treatment is necessary. Here's how it works. Interferon is a chemical that we all have in our bodies in very small amounts. It fights off viruses, but it's easily overwhelmed by certain viruses like hepatitis C. That's why you require additional interferon through weekly injections."
"Isn't that considered a form of chemotherapy?" I asked.
My sister Cooke, the naturalist, had been talking against chemotherapy for years.
"And if I don't start this chemotherapy?" I had to ask.
"You'll become very, very sick."
"At some point your liver will stop functioning."
"I'm in the middle of making a record. I simply can't stop now for treatments."
"The treatments don't need to start immediately. But soon. Very soon."
"There are other kinds of treatments," said Cooke, with whom I spoke every evening.
"Dr. Woolf claims chemotherapy is the most effective."
"Western prejudices, Western doctors, Western medicines concocted by profit-CRazed Western pharmaceutical firms. Why not look into alternative programs?"
Cooke was Ms. Alternative, a hippie before the word existed. She was a bohemian, an actress, and a sweetheart. I adored Cooke. Carol Cooke Cole was my adopted sister. Her mom, who died of tuberculosis in 1949, was my mother's sister. Cooke's dad had died the year before, and my parents brought her to our home. Amid great controversy, my parents had moved to a mansion in Hancock Park, a super-WASPy section of Los Angeles populated by, among others, the governor of California, Earl Warren. Mom and Dad broke the color barrier and, with the help of a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, defied the nonwhite covenant and set up house. They had to endure the sight of CRosses being burned on the front lawn. When the bigoted neighbors told Dad that they didn't want undesirables moving in, he said, "Neither do I. If I see any, I'll let you know."
When I made my grand entrance on February 6, 1950, Cooke was five and had been living with my parents only a few short months. Dad nicknamed her Cooke. The name came from his favorite comic strip; Dagwood and Blondie's daughter was named Cookie. To go with Cooke, Dad called me Sweetie. Everyone thought the name came from my love of sweets, but the real reason is that Dad wanted a linguistic match for Cooke.
I was Cooke's favorite playmate, her little doll. She was big sis—protective, smart, and hip from Jump Street.
We stuck together for many reasons. First, there was little-sis big-sis affection. I loved having an older sister to look up to, and in return, Cooke loved having a playmate to lead around. We also stuck together in emotional survival mode. Our mother, bless her heart, was distant. Dad was warm and cuddly, but Dad was on the road at least two-thirds of the time. Because Mom usually accompanied him, we were left with the maids and nannies and Mom's super-cool sister, Aunt Charlotte.
Dad always wanted a boy, and when I was nine, my parents adopted my brother, Kelly. Two years later, Mom gave birth to girl twins, Timolin and Casey. I was CRazy about all my siblings, but the ironclad bond with Cooke was formed first. It was probably the most wonderful and satisfying relationship of my life.
Our apartment was extremely modest. There was no money for fancy furniture, no frills of any kind. Yet I never felt deprived. Love lived in those tiny rooms where we lived—Mama's love.
I loved helping Mama in the kitchen. The pots were boiling, the tortillas sizzling in the skillet, and Mama was in a bubbly mood.
"Patricia," Mama said to me in Spanish, "I have something to tell you that will make you happy."
I couldn't imagine what it was.
"I'm going to have a baby."
"Will it be a girl?"
I had two younger brothers, whom I loved. But more than anything, I wanted a baby sister.
"If it is God's will," said Mama. "But boy or girl, a new baby is always a blessing. A new baby always brings joy."
Mama's pregnancy gave me joy. I was happy to help her in any way I could. Even though I was only ten, I was proficient at most of the household chores. I could cook and clean and do laundry. The more I did, the more useful I felt.
When it came time to go the hospital, I wanted to accompany my mother.
"Better that you care for your brothers."
The next day my mother's sister Esther—we called her Aunt Tete—called.
"You have a sister, niÑa," she said.
I sCReamed with delight. "What's her name?"
"Jessica's a beautiful name."
"Jessica's a beautiful baby."
"Can I come to the hospital to see her?"
"Not right away, sweetheart. The doctors have to give her some more medicine."
"I can help the doctors."
"I know you can, but just be a little patient and you'll see her soon."
I didn't see her soon.
We stayed in a Los Angeles neighborhood where other El Salvadoran families lived. With my mother still in the hospital, they, along with my own relatives, made sure that my brothers and I were okay. But I was uneasy. I wanted to see my mother, and of course my little sister, Jessica.
Then good news, again from Aunt Tete: Mama and Jessica were coming home. The night before, I was too excited to sleep. Next morning, I stood guard by the window and came running out the second the car pulled up to our apartment. There was Mama, but no Jessica.
Even as I was hugging my mother, I asked, "Where's my sister?"
"She can't come home yet, darling. She needs medicines and care that only the hospital can provide."
When I started CRying, Mama took me in her arms.
"Will Jessica be okay?" I asked.
"If it's God's will, yes."
"And if it's not God's will?" I asked.
"The doctors are doing all they can."
"When can I see her?"
"You'll have to be patient, sweetheart."
I wasn't patient. I began composing letters to Jessica, welcoming her to the family. Each night I'd stare at the CRib aCRoss from my bed, imagining what it would be like to have my infant sister sleep by my side.
It was not an easy time. Mama did not have a husband. Jessica's father was not the same man who had fathered me. Mama raised us alone, working three different jobs as a caretaker. She alone was burdened with the task of providing us with food and shelter.
For three long months she went to the hospital every day to see her newborn. When I kept asking what was wrong, I was told that Jessica was sick and required serious surgery. The words meant little to me. All I remember is being afraid that my sister was going to die—and I'd never get to see her.
Then one day I overheard Mama and Aunt Tete speaking in Spanish. I understood their every word: They had moved the baby from Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, where she was born, to County Hospital, where the operation was performed. After the operation, a nurse wasn't careful with an IV tube and somehow infected Jessica. Knowing we were Catholic, the doctors suggested that Mama call a priest to baptize the baby.
I had to interrupt the conversation. It didn't matter that my mother would learn that I was eavesdropping.
"Why a priest?" I asked. "Is Jessica dying? I need to see her before she dies."
"She's sick," Aunt Tete explained, "but that doesn't mean she won't get better."
"Then why is she being baptized?"
"All babies born in our faith are baptized."
"Why can't we wait until she comes home and baptize her in a church? Isn't that how babies are usually baptized?"
"We're just being cautious, niÑa," said Mama.
I knew that they were trying to keep me from being afraid, but I was afraid nonetheless. I prayed to God that my sister get well. Every night I looked at her CRib and imagined her sleeping there. Every day when Mama left to see her at the hospital, I asked if I could come along. Every day I was told no; I was told to be patient. Every night when Mama returned, I asked about my sister.
At the end of the third month, I was looking out the window when I saw Aunt Tete's car drive up. I saw Mama was seated next to her. When Mama got out of the car, I saw she was holding a baby. I opened the door and ran like the wind to finally see my sister.
Her little eyes.
Her sweet little cheeks.
Her tiny fingers and fingernails.
A doll. My sister. My hermanita. A living doll. Alive and well.
"Can I hold her?" I asked Mama.
"Yes, just wait till we get inside, honey."
My brothers were curious to see her, but I was over the moon. I had to be the first one to put her in her CRib.
"Handle her gently," said Mama.
I took my baby sister in my arms. She was light as a feather. I looked down at her eyes just as she was looking at me. I ever so gently laid her down in her CRib. She closed her eyes and slept. I stood there the whole time, just watching.
I gave her a bottle that night. As she sucked in the milk, she kept looking at me.
"I'm Patty," I said. "I'm your big sister."
During the night, I woke up every twenty minutes or so to check on her. I wanted to make sure she was breathing. She was. She slept peacefully.
Jessica was finally home.
© 2010 Natalie Cole