CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe Marusak/The Charlotte Observer) - Friends keep texting Aaron Barker.
How much he meant to them. How much they miss him.
Hey, Aaron, it's your Lyssie. I'm just sitting on break with you on my mind," reads one.
"You was like my big brother ... We all are going to miss you man."
Aaron, 15, died in January. He collapsed at home after basketball practice at Olympic High School.
But the texts keep coming.
And his mother, who kept his phone, answers them all.
They are, Sharon Barker said, " the reason I'm still living."
Some of her replies are longer than others. Many are just heart emojis.
It's been 10 months, and his family still grieves, with no answer to what caused his death.
"I don't wish this on my worst enemy," Sharon Barker said.
'Strong as an ox'
Aaron was a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard for Olympic. He was fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Two years earlier, he played eighth-grade travel basketball on former Charlotte Hornets star Muggsy Bogues' MB1 team.
At 227 pounds and nearly 6-feet-4-inches tall, "he was just as strong and healthy as an ox," Sharon Barker said. "His football coaches used to call him a freak of nature."
On the morning of Jan. 21, Aaron had basketball practice at Olympic. Then he returned home.
That afternoon, Barker said, she was taking a nap in her bedroom when her oldest son's girlfriend needed to use the bathroom Aaron was in. She knocked but got no response. She knocked again about 20 minutes later. Silence.
Family members loosened the lock – it's the type that can be easily opened even with a finger, Sharon Barker said. It's meant for households with children who can accidentally lock themselves in a room.
Sharon Barker entered the bathroom and saw her unresponsive son slumped over on his knees in the bathtub, as if he'd fallen off the toilet.
"I wanted to believe he was OK, but he looked dead to me," she said.
The family called 911. Sharon Barker said she was trained to perform CPR, but neither she nor the EMTs who arrived got a response.
Earlier that afternoon, she'd gone up to Aaron as she always did to tell him she loved him.
"When he left this world, he knew he was loved," Sharon Barker said.
The family finally received a copy of the autopsy results last week, but the report only deepened the mystery for them.
The report lists the cause of Aaron's death as "undetermined," which provides no closure to the family, Sharon Barker said. Her husband stayed up crying after reviewing the report.
Sharon Barker spent the months researching the cause of sudden deaths among other fit young athletes. So she wasn't surprised the autopsy mentioned arrhythmia as a possible cause, she said, although her son never showed symptoms of a heart irregularity.
The autopsy by the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner's Office revealed an enlarged heart with a thickened left ventricle wall. That could suggest arrhythmia as a cause of death, according to the report. "However, definitive diagnosis of arrhythmia is based on clinical findings and is not possible after death," the report said.
The autopsy found no substances of "toxicologic significance" in Aaron's blood, urine and liver, and said no drug paraphernalia or drugs were near where he was found.
That didn't surprise his mom. "He was way too happy to do something to himself," she said. The biggest trouble he ever go into was for acting up or talking too loudly in class once, she said.
The youngest of four brothers, Aaron was spoiled rotten, she said. He loved shoes and always asked for yet another pair of new ones. His parents always obliged.
"He was a great kid, an awesome son," Sharon Barker said. "It's amazing the lives he touched."
Just read the texts:
"Bro I miss you," one reads. "I'm trying not to cry in class ... PLEASE WATCH OVER ME!!! I love you lil bro. Quay."
"You meant the world to him so know that he is with you every day and wants the best for you," Sharon Barker replied.
"Today i promise to play my heart out for not only God himself but you and AB," says another.
"Awwwwwwww Meek, you trying to make me cry," Sharon Barker replies. "Have a phenomenal game, baby."
She still expects to see Aaron at times, but then she realizes he's never coming back.
She watches video almost every day showing Aaron on family vacations and on the basketball court, "just to see him alive and happy. It helps me cope."
And she watches his phone.