Swimming Upstream

Jodi Helmer


I'm not a fish person. I don't understand the calming effect of aquariums, I don't enjoy the serenity of the lake on an early morning fishing trip, and you will never find me ordering the 'catch of the day' in a restaurant. I did own a goldfish once. He lived for three years even though his bowl was laden with algae and I neglected to feed him. When he finally died I flushed his floating orange body down the toilet and went on with my life. What can I say, I'm not a fish person.

That is why I was surprised to find myself face-to-face with four large salmon on Christmas morning. Or more accurately, a large framed print of four salmon courtesy of my new in-laws.

"It's…definitely your taste," was the only comment I could muster to describe to my husband how I felt about this offering. I stared at it for what seemed like an eternity and wracked my brain for a positive comment about these fish.

If I couldn't find a reason to appreciate the fish, I wanted to at least appreciate the spirit in which they were given. "I think it's supposed to be symbolic," I said. (My husband grew up in a small town in interior British Columbia named Salmon Arm).

In the days and weeks following I spent a lot of time trying to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the salmon that had found their way to the empty space above our fireplace.

Shortly after we received the picture we had friends over for dinner. I pointed out the picture as I was pouring wine. I had already explained my feelings about the picture over the phone earlier in the week and I was hoping that seeing it, our friends would side with me and the picture would be hung in the depths of our closet. The conversation came to a halt when my friend exclaimed, "no wine for me, I'm the designated driver…for the next seven months."

The picture was forgotten.

After they left we stood in the kitchen cleaning up. "I can't believe she's pregnant," I said.

"Did you know that salmon swim hundreds of miles upstream every year to spawn?" my fish-loving husband asked, apparently ignoring my surprise at our friend's pregnancy.

"Why is Swimming Upstream suddenly so important to everyone?" I yelled at him, surprising myself with the force of my words.

In that instant I understood why I hated the salmon. The salmon had it all figured out. They were genetically programmed for mating season. Swimming against strong currents, hundreds of miles upstream, arriving in shallow streams to spawn. With little energy left after their long journey, salmon lay their eggs and retreat downstream for another year. Mission complete.

And if it wasn't annoying enough that the salmon had it all figured out, my friends were starting to figure it out as well. And I didn't have a clue. After almost two years of marriage I am bombarded with inquiries, guilt trips and reminders of my 'marital obligations' from family, friends and apparently well-meaning strangers. It seems everyone is thinking about when we'll have children but me.

Just like the salmon, those damned salmon, faithfully make their way upstream each year in time for mating season, it seems that I'm expected to know when my mating season will begin. While everyone is wondering when we'll have children, we're still wondering if we'll have children.

I'm surrounded by women who have it all figured out; my friends who are ecstatic about their pending arrival, the glowing blonde with the beach ball tucked beneath her sweater at the doctor's office, and a coworker with an 8-month old son who is already planning a second pregnancy. And of course, the salmon.

I listen to my biological clock and I hear nothing. When I think of my future, I see a post-graduate degree, sun-soaked vacations on the Greek Isles with my husband and next week's manicure appointment. The thought of children hadn't even entered my mind until Christmas morning when I tore into the brightly colored wrapping paper and discovered a well-intentioned gift that had suddenly turned my entire world upside down.

Friends tell me I'll know when it's the right time and I must trust my instinct and take the leap. I wonder if it's true. In the meantime I'm making peace with the salmon. I've realized that I have something they don't: the luxury to make my own decisions about Swimming Upstream. I guess the salmon have taught me something.


© Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer living in Beaverton, OR


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