My little brother is dead.
I was at Bill's bedside with our mother and sisters when he took his last breath, and I still can't grasp the reality that my little brother is gone. Bill Schembs Constable, 48, died on Aug. 9, 2010 (8-9-10), after a difficult nine-month battle against bile duct cancer.
My eyes tear up as I write that, and yet I smile at the memory of how, as a little kid, Bill used to sign his school work as Bill Washington Constable. He explained that his manufactured middle name not only sounded fancier than our mom's maiden name, it was easier to spell. That gets our sisters, Sally and Nancy, and mom, Lois, reminiscing about how Bill, as a preschooler, would pretend he was a TV anchorman. For those make-believe broadcasts, he chose the name Diarrhea Ben Casey, which he thought sounded snazzy, and his lead story always was, "Nobody dint die today."
Bill was a born entertainer, a showman, a storyteller, a larger-than-life personality. When we were kids and Bill could be coerced into playing baseball, he insisted on taking a break every half inning so that he could play the part of the bear in a Hamm's Beer commercial.
Sorry, but I can't hear the word ham without retelling a Bill story. Back when Bill was a piano player stuck waiting tables in 1990, he desperately wanted to attend the jazz festival in New Orleans. So he had a friend call his boss with a fake announcement that our dad, still very much alive, had died. The jig was up when a woman at his job called Mom to ask where she could send a funeral ham.
The ham story led to another Bill confession about how he used that same "dead dad" alibi to skip a few shifts at a Dallas hotel. Mom's reputation took a hit a couple of weeks later when she, believed to be a grieving widow, booked a room there with a smile on her face and a guy (who really was her very-alive husband) on her arm.
It says something about Bill that the woman who made that ham phone call from the restaurant that fired Bill 20 years ago drove 100 miles on a sweltering Friday afternoon so she could attend Bill's memorial service.
"Everybody loves Bill," people tell us time and again, recounting stories about how Bill would walk into a place without knowing a soul, and walk out a few hours later with lifelong friends. His South Newton High School Class of 1980 organized a fundraiser in our hometown of Goodland, Ind., before Bill's birthday in April. The event, which featured Bill playing keyboard with a couple of bands, drew hundreds and hundreds of people, and led to more legendary stories such as the time home-alone teenage Bill staged a Woodstockian rock festival on our farm that featured live bands, beer, parking attendants and hot-air balloon rides.
Bill's www.caringbridge.org/visit/billconstable site boasts many funny stories posted by some of the more than 40,000 visitors. The Facebook page for Bill Constable features a few wonderful tributes to Bill posted by his co-workers and friends in the TV business. They all know Bill as Cartboy because Bill made a name for himself driving a camera cart on the sidelines of college football games. A partner in a behind-the-scenes production company, Bill loved his job and the people he met working from coast to coast.
Bill was charming, funny, witty, generous, playful, reckless, the most lavish tipper ever, had a belly laugh that compelled others to join in, loved to hold court, and was able to turn any piano in any location into an instant party. But I think what made him so loved is that he truly did relish life and the people he met. Able to overlook flaws and squelch any judgmental instinct, Bill always found something to like in the people he ran across. He had a way to make people realize that and feel good about themselves.
Friday, in a brief memorial service that featured songs performed by his dear friends in a band called The ReachArounds, we bid goodbye to Bill. The service took place on the stage in the tabernacle at Fountain Park Chautauqua in Remington, Ind. That's the same stage where, at age 4, Bill beat out a future Miss Indiana to win a talent contest, hosted illicit (but much appreciated and widely attended) midnight piano concerts as a teen and adult, and played the keyboard for the last time and earned a standing ovation during a public performance two weeks before he died. He leaves behind a lifetime of stories and a wealth of friends. Still, I can't help thinking that he's going to walk through the door any minute with a hilarious story and a ham for Mom.