10/28/2010 02:19 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Paul Steven Miller Showed Me How to Die

The country lost a great humanitarian last week (Tuesday, Oct. 19). Paul Steven Miller died way too young, at 49.

Paul was a dwarf. He was also the biggest man I ever knew. He worked for two Presidents, Clinton and Obama, and served many years as a commissioner on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He was a tireless fighter for disability rights and an expert on disability law and employment discrimination. His advocacy helped tens of thousands of Americans -- and they probably never even knew it.

Paul was a genius. No, really, an official genius. He went to Penn and Harvard Law and, most recently, held the Henry M. Jackson chair at the University of Washington Law School. He read everything worth reading, liked everybody worth liking and was funnier than most guys you see on television. He had zillions of friends all over the world.

All that sounds pretty impressive. To his friends, that was the least of it: Paul showed us how to live. And then he taught us how to die.

His legal brilliance aside, Paul was a loving husband to his wife, Jenni; a doting father to his two daughters, the life of every party and a public figure who never let his physical stature define him. His wisdom, knowledge, compassion and wit were too big for that.

As a guest at our wedding a decade ago, he needed a ride to the synagogue for the ceremony. One of my wife's friends who had never met him offered to drive him. They were staying at the same hotel, so she called his room to make arrangements.

"I'll meet you in the lobby," he said.

"How will I recognize you?" she asked him.

He told her, "I'll be wearing a tuxedo."

Last year, when the cancer came back and an arm was amputated, Paul was simply glad to be spared. He joked that he was the only one-armed Jewish dwarf to serve in the White House. President Obama called to wish him the best.

But Paul didn't want pity, even when he learned later that the cancer had spread to both lungs. He sought expert opinions for radical treatments and vowed that he was not giving up. Through it all, I don't know anyone who ever heard him complain.

Even when the odds grew too long for a miracle, he approached his fate like a legal battle, his toughest case yet. He sought advice from a small circle of friends on questions he might address in videos he was making for his daughters, Naomi, 10, and Delia, five. And then he went wide with the news: Through a public website, he walked us through the final weeks, telling us how he was doing, what it was like when he told the kids he was dying, how he was moving into palliative care at home.

The public response was immediate, overwhelming and unrelenting: thousands wrote, offering prayers, expressing sorrow, and, of course, trading Paul stories.

He kept at it -- not in a maudlin way, but lacing everything with humor and humility.

To me and my wife Joan, a dear friend of Paul's from Penn, it was incredible. The updates were impossibly sad but monumentally touching, that a dying man could share such intimate, painful and emotionally charged moments.

Then it dawned on us: Paul was still the smartest one in the room. He was taking care of us as we were struggling to comfort him. He was showing us how to die -- with dignity, humility, courage and grace.

Our rabbi always told us that people die the way they live. Paul lived big. He died even bigger. He was a towering figure. Ask anybody who knew him.