By Chris DiMeo
A two of spades flutters loftily through the air, then dives into Ethan Cale’s hand like a slam dunk into a basketball hoop.
Ethan, 20, stands in his living room in Bowling Green, Kentucky, effortlessly juggling the card in high arcs as he chats with his parents, Crystal and Ron Cale.
He is adept with cards, from spring flourishes to magic tricks, and has been known to carry a deck around in his pocket. He learned the skill for the same reason he’s done anything for the past nine years: just to have done it.
“I’m still finding things where I’m like, ‘I want to do that. I don’t care if I do that professionally, but I at least want to do it once.’ Like, I want to write a book,” he said, laughing with every third word. He’s the human personification of a smile. “But now my list of things I want to do is, like, forever long.”
For the first 12 years of his life, however, trying something new was little more than a distraction from what really mattered.
Nine years ago, his one and almost only focus in life was to play basketball. Professionally, recreationally. Forever. But after a life-threatening medical condition shattered this dream, he was forced to reassemble the pieces into a new meaning of life and new reason to grow.
Born and raised until 16 in suburban Ogden, Utah, Ethan had an early life that he compares to a movie scene of the quintessential white picket neighborhood. He succeeded in school, had a big group of friends, and was always active.
“I was kind of a one-trick pony,” he said. “And my one trick was playing sports.”
But like any good movie, the peace was not to last.
One otherwise normal day at an otherwise normal basketball practice, he was putting his all into running exercises. He had just finished in first and was feeling great. Until he wasn’t feeling anything at all.
“I don’t remember it,” he said. “I woke up on the floor and was like, ‘what happened? That was weird. I’ve never done that before. Is that normal?’”
The team chalked the incident up to dehydration, so at the next practice he kept up his liquid intake and pushed himself just as hard. But again, as soon as he stopped running he hit the floor.
This time he jarred his head on the way down, so his parents took him to the local pediatric center, not knowing they were about to start on a long hunt for answers they’d never really find. They began a dance between the regional hospital and specialists at Utah’s leading pediatric hospital, slogging through seemingly endless tests and theories. Doctors hypothesized the problem could be rooted in anxiety, malfunctioning chest muscles, or even low sodium intake. Tests found two holes in his heart, but the family was assured that this was not uncommon, and probably not the cause.
Finally, neurologists found an issue in his vagal nerve, which regulates heartbeat, and gave him medicine that slowly began combatting the fainting. But they started bringing about ominous chest pains.
“By ‘chest pains,’ I mean I felt like I was getting stabbed in the chest by a knife,” he said.
His mother, Crystal, said this was the first time she realized how much was still unknown about her son’s condition.
“The first time your kid drops and seems to be having a heart attack and you don’t know what’s going on, it was really scary,” she said.
The frequent, debilitating pain pulled Ethan out of school often. He started to fear the worst.
And it happened.
When he was told he could no longer play basketball, he wasn’t sure how he’d survive seventh grade. He was already scheduled to transfer to an elite academic school where he had no friends, and now he had to start anew without the one thing that had always defined his life.
“My whole plan since I was, like, five, was, like: go to junior high, play on the team. Go to high school, play on the team. If I play professional, cool,” he said.
His father, Ron, said that basketball was a part of Ethan’s very identity, and having that taken away made him question everything.
“It took him a while to reclaim who he was, to find out who he was outside of sports, outside of, ‘okay, I can’t play basketball, who am I?’” he said.
That seventh grade year was “brutal,” with the loneliness and loss exacerbated by migraines that began to accompany the chest pains and increasing school workload that made him question the academic success he always thought he had.
“Seventh grade Ethan was anxious, disconnected, and, looking back on it now, had more friends than he realized,” he said.
The next year, things were starting to change, slowly.
He had to focus more on school, which fostered an interest in reading. His family and classmates who would later become friends encouraged him to branch out into a new way of spending his time: creating. He was rapidly finding himself drawn into art and baking. He picked up card tricks on a whim.
“The magic stuff came along because of (a) boredom and (b) my cousin started throwing cards at my head and I was like, ‘that is ridiculous, I need to learn how to do that,’” he said. “And then (c) because—this is going to sound utterly ridiculous—but my cousin taught me a lot of flirting magic tricks.”
Ninth grade brought him to another new school, where he reconnected with old friends and discovered new ones. He joined theater, started excelling in academics again, and said he “really hit my stride.”
The chest pains from his heart condition, too, were becoming less and less frequent, and although the migraines remained persistent, he felt less restricted by the condition.
It was becoming part of him, maybe as much as basketball used to be.
“I really honestly feel like I wouldn’t have branched out if that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
He’s a focused person, and when he was focused solely on basketball, he risked missing out on the artistic, creative, intellectual pursuits that add so much meaning to his life today.
“So the heart stuff, really, as unfortunate as it was at the time—how not fun it was at the time—I’m really grateful for,” he said.
Back then, he was stubborn, so the heart condition was the only thing that would have gotten to branch out into new things, but he thinks it’s a lesson anyone can learn.
“I feel like everyone can grow that skill,” he said, “because I really do feel like it’s a skill to try new things. To put yourself outside of your comfort zone is kind of like a muscle you build.”
He’s thankful for the person he became, and the things he got to try. But it’s obvious that he’s aware of the person he could have been, the one who would know what his future holds. Who would be in college now, playing basketball. Considering playing professionally.
“To this day, I’m like—” he paused, clearly holding back a sigh of frustration. Or maybe of grief. “—I could have done it.” He usually laughs lightly at the end of every sentence. This time he didn’t.
In his living room, Ethan keeps tossing the two of spades, sending it sailing upwards in a parabola as he trades it between his hands. Maybe it’s unintentional, but the trajectory looks like an inversion of an idly dribbled basketball.
His family’s dog now sits alongside his parents as they watch him enthusiastically detailing his plans for a custom-designed playing card company. He has been cultivating an Instagram account and plans to launch a Kickstarter this year, but this is far from his only goal in life.
“It’s just something I want to do,” he says. Like writing a book. Like studying psychology. Or maybe graphic design.
It’s one of possibly countless “somethings” he now wants to try, just to know he tried. Things his twelve-year-old self wouldn’t have considered when he first smacked into the basketball court on that Utah summer.
“It was kind of this focal point,” he says, pointing, making a dot, with his left index finger, “of like, ‘Ethan is one-sided—’”
He points with his right finger to make a line. The one-track, linear life he once pursued.
“—to ‘Ethan is kind of like a circle now.’”
He moves his right finger to trace a circle’s circumference, tracing that single line into mathematically infinite lines, paths so numerous he couldn’t begin to count them as he draws them. He’ll discover them all if he can.