Natalie Cole Coping with Life's Joys and Sorrows

09/23/2009 at 07:00 AM EDT

Natalie Cole Coping with Life's Joys and Sorrows
Natalie Cole
For Natalie Cole, the past four months can be summed up in one word: unforgettable.

Back in May, the singer received a life-saving kidney transplant. But when she came out of surgery, she learned her sister Cookie, who had been battling lung cancer, had passed away.

"This was a very joyous moment where I've got new life. It was also a very sorrowful moment, where my sister had gone on, and the family that donated the kidney had lost their daughter as well," Cole, 59, says in the November/December issue of AARP The Magazine.

"My first reaction was that I wished I were back on dialysis to have my sister," she says. "These two people had left this earth – and I was here. Why? I feel like I don't deserve it."

Cole was at her sister's bedside when she received word that a kidney was available, and her family forced her to leave.

"I've lost some very special people, but Cookie is the toughest," says the Grammy winner. "There's a part of me that's missing now. I don't expect that I will ever totally get over it."

It had already been a rough year for Cole, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C in April 2008. Chemotherapy treatments left her sick and weak, and she later developed kidney problems, which required dialysis three times a week.

She had little hope of ever being healthy again: "They told me the average wait for a kidney was three years. At first I thought, 'There goes my life.' "

But thanks to the transplant, Cole is – as she told the audience at her Sept. 9 comeback concert – "100 percent" healthy. "I didn't know that I could feel this good again," she says in the interview.

And she has more people than her doctors to thank.

"Those angels on my shoulder who've been there all along – now I know that my sister Cookie is one of them," she says.

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