Emmett Smith is Sam's uncle and, like her deceased father, he has served in the Vietnam War. The realization that her father and uncle have killed people in Vietnam comes as a shock for Sam who is on her personal quest to understand the war. Her uncle, however, does not like to talk about the war. His experience in Vietnam has left a deep trauma in him and the novel shows his struggle to come to terms with his psychological condition worsened by keeping everything inside and not being able to let go. Sam also suspects that his uncle may have been poisoned by the chemicals of Agent Orange. Only towards the end of the novel does Emmett begin to speak about the war and he also organizes a family trip to the Washington Vietnam Memorial (which, when the novel was published, had been only recently inaugurated). Emmett's hobby - birdwatching - is symbolic of his efforts to come to terms with his trauma and come out of the psychological prison he has contributed to construct for himself. He explains that
If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside of yourself, and it doesn't hurt as much. That's the whole idea. That's the whole challenge for the human race.
The final image of Emmett and his smiling face metaphorically compared to flames recalls the bird imagery through the myth of the Phoenix, the bird that resurrects from its ashes. The image is the presage of a new life that Emmett will be able to begin now that he has finally stopped to keep Vietnam buried within himself.