Tracey Emin: 'You have to watch out for death when you are most happy'

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Something very sweet happened today: my mum made pancakes for me and everyone at my studio. My mum will be 81 soon and to see her with a bowl and fork in hand whisking away, with the eager eyes of my Japanese assistant following her every move, and then the tossing – it all worked very well. And the no-recipe formula, the all-knowing "I've-been-making-pancakes-for-70-years" attitude filled me with a strange, glowing pride for my mum, a real mum doing a real mum thing.

I don't often feel like this. And the reason I don't feel like this is because since the age of 15 I've been swamped with an abundance of independence. I have a distance between myself and my family; a distance that I keep in place to protect myself. It has nothing to do with love or a desire to be free from them, it's just the way things are and always have been.

I've just got used to going to myself for help. I often get niggled by the proximity of love – an irritable hereditary clash of being too close. But today I really love my mum and I'm very happy that she's here, sitting in the studio, quietly reading a book. I feel good that I have a mum that's so adaptable and someone who seems so much younger than their years.

Today is my dad's birthday. He's 88. I've tried to call him but there's no answer on the end of the line. Unlike some people who would worry, I don't. I know he's in Cyprus digging around in his garden. I can go weeks without speaking to my dad. My dad has gone years without speaking to my brother, and visa versa. We are dysfunctional in the truest sense of the word.

I often imagine what it must be like to be in what you'd term a normal family. Not a family where there is always harmony and a fake 2.2 syndrome, but a family which shows solidarity and commitment, constantly.

The last few weeks my column has been quite sombre. And over the last few weeks I have been watching my friend slowly die of cancer. On Sunday night I kissed him goodbye on the forehead. I could feel the breeze from Commercial Street blowing through the window as I walked out the room and waved goodbye.

He's not just my friend, he's the father of my friends, and the husband of one of my closest, dearest friends. I'm connected to the whole family. It really, really hurts to see your friends suffer. Somehow within your own suffering there is the excruciating pain that you have to deal with, but when you witness others suffer so immensely it's as though the pain bounces to and fro like waves of shock, and you want to make things better for them. And you can't. All you can do is to try to help with practicalities.

This week I am very, very confused about death. Where does it come from? I do really feel like it's an entity, like the Grim Reaper. Something that you have to watch out for at the times when you are most happy and when you are gently asleep in the dark, no moment is safe. All I could say to my friends is nothing will ever be the same again. Coming into the world, leaving the world, these big, big, big events. Without sounding too crass: we all do it. I walked around Liverpool Street train station today. It was the commuter hour and like some improvised play my character kept saying: "Everybody's going to die, we're all going to go." Now I really want to know where.

What I know about my friend is that he looked very much in peace. In fact, he had a smile on his face. That I found very comforting. But I would still like to know where he's gone, and where we all go.

I have a general sense of dissatisfaction about this planet that we're on. I really can't believe this is it. And if it is, then all the suffering is even worse. When I was young, before I started having sex, I really believed that if you never had children you would leave this planet when you died. You would never be reincarnated and, unless you were a ghost, not one single part of your soul would be able to return. Not having children would be a good shortcut to the next world. I've never been one of those people who thought I could possibly come back as a tree or a dragonfly.

Part of me has always thought that my soul has re-entered the earth's atmosphere on quite a few occasions now, but always as something human. And as wonderful as life can be, there is always part of me that's feeling here we go again.

I have never been afraid of my own death, but as I get older my fear of losing those that I love becomes immensely greater. This week has been an incredibly sad week.

I've watched a family deal with pain and I've seen how much they love each other, how close they are. Their love is a strong, good, positive thing and it's made me question my own situation again, and my own beliefs.

So I write this column in loving memory of my friend Dennis Esqulant, landlord of The Golden Heart for 30 years.

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