Else Kessler Bolotin, who died peacefully at her Lexington apartment Aug. 8 at the age of 88, lived a life worth reading about.
She survived the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States in 1954 with her husband, chemical engineer Adriaan Kessler. She earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Cincinnati.
After they divorced, she married real estate broker David Bolotin and moved to Lexington with her three children. From 1975 to 1986, she and Allie Hendricks ran a counseling service called Women Inc. They helped Lexington women in that era of feminist awakening confront a society dominated by men.
But what family and friends talked about last week were Bolotin’s final years — the way she embraced life, stayed current, made new friends and refused to let a terminal disease stop her from living life to its fullest.
Medical science has made great progress. More people are living well into their 80s and beyond. But this often creates dilemmas. How do elderly people remain happy and fulfilled? How do they choose between length of life and quality of life?
I never met Bolotin, but I got to know her son, Glenn Kessler, 25 years ago in New York when we were covering the Eastern Airlines bankruptcy. He now writes the Washington Post’s popular Fact Checker blog, where he rates the accuracy of politicians’ statements using a scale of “Pinocchios”.
Kessler said his mother died the way she always lived: fully engaged.
“She had this remarkable ability of always being interested in people and things,” he said. “She was never afraid of anything new. She was very open-minded.”
In 1986, Bolotin and her husband moved to Seattle because they went on vacation there and thought it would be an interesting place to live. She started a new psychology practice and often testified as an expert witness in gender discrimination cases.
The couple later moved to Chapel Hill, N.C. When her husband died in 2012, Bolotin returned to Lexington to be near her daughter, Sylvia Boggs.
After living in a “seniors” community in North Carolina, Bolotin wanted no part of one in Lexington. She chose an apartment in the Beaumont area in a complex popular with immigrant professionals and families with children.
“As soon as she came to Lexington, she joined a book club and a health club and a mahjong group,” Kessler said. “She met people here and she met people there.”
At book club, Bolotin met Roz Heise, a retired social worker. They connected despite a 16-year age difference.
“We had so much in common in our professional lives, the way we thought about things, politics and theater,” Heise said. “We saw each other all the time.”
Heise organizes volunteers for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre each Monday night. Bolotin attended almost every show.
Two years ago, Bolotin was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, which had already spread to her lungs and lymph nodes.
“It was very difficult to treat, but they definitely could have done chemotherapy and things like that to control the growth of cancer,” Kessler said. “But her attitude was that’s not how I want to live the last years of my life.”
Bolotin’s views were influenced by her second husband’s lingering death after heart surgery, as well as Dutch attitudes about euthanasia. Rather than seek to prolong her life at all cost, she made the most of the time she had.
Bolotin was especially excited about spending the July 4 weekend with Kessler, her other son, Marc, and their families in Quebec City, Canada. When her doctor advised against the trip, she told him she was going anyway. She never seemed in pain, Kessler said. When asked, she said she felt fine and changed the subject.
Kessler took a picture of his mother at a Quebec restaurant, dressed up and smiling with a raised glass of wine. But the trip weakened her. Doctors put her on oxygen and she insisted on a portable oxygen tank so she wouldn’t be confined to her apartment.
The week she died, Bolotin went to book club on Tuesday and lunched with friends on Wednesday. Heise brought pizza and ice cream to her apartment Thursday night so they and another friend could watch the GOP presidential debate together.
“Else was running commentary the whole time, completely involved in the debate,” Heise said. “She was a politics junkie and a committed Democrat and kept up to the minute with what was going on.”
When the debate ended, her friends went home because it was late. Bolotin stayed up to watch Jon Stewart’s last night as host of The Daily Show. On Friday, Bolotin went to her mahjong group and won three games. The next morning, she died.
“She would often tell me, ‘You know, Roz, I don’t understand people in this country; they won’t talk about death,'” Heise said. “They pretend it’s not going to happen. But dying is a part of living.”
Bolotin was always reading, watching TV, listening to public radio and music, surfing the Internet, going to the theater, lunching with friends.
“My mother was, like, crazy on Facebook and caught up on all the latest technology, in part to keep up with and engage with her grandkids,” Kessler said.
Kessler’s son, Andre, recently became a software engineer for SpaceX, the space exploration company started by entrepreneur Elon Musk. “She went out and bought a biography of Elon Musk so she could read about it and have a conversation with her grandson,” he said.
“She was just interested in people and she didn’t want to have that spoiled by having to constantly go for cancer treatments,” he said.
The lesson Kessler, 56, learned from his mother’s last years is that it is “really important that you not act like you’re old. I look at how many friends my mother made in just the last couple of years and I feel like I’ve got to step up my game.”