A Vermont legislator sang a heartfelt a cappella rendition of "Over the Rainbow" Friday morning on the House floor during a stirring tribute to an activist.
Rep. Kiah Morris (D-Bennington) belted out the tune for the House's devotional, a daily formality that usually consists of the state song or the national anthem. Friday's change-up to the classic Wizard of Oz song — sung by a legislator, no less — was part of the remembrance for Paij Wadley-Bailey, who died in 2016.
The House honored Wadley-Bailey with a resolution. Morris' performance held members' rapt attention from beginning to end.
“Paij contributed a lot to our community on so many levels and in so many ways,” Rep. Brian Cina (P-Burlington) said Friday. “She was an educator and an activist and a community organizer.”
Wadley-Bailey was one of the first 29 Vermonters to die using the state law that allows terminally ill Vermonters to end their own lives with a physician's prescription.
Cina, a friend of Wadley-Bailey, said he “can only imagine that Paij was tickled watching Kiah sing one of her favorite songs.”
Cina said Wadley-Bailey focused her life on opposing war and racism and advocating for LGBT rights. He spent a lot of time with her in the final months of her life, when she became very ill.
Cina said Wadley-Bailey helped send him to the Statehouse in the 2016 election even though she died before the vote.
"When she found out that I was running for the House, she was kind of elated, and in her final few weeks was kind of like an adviser to me on her deathbed," Cina said. "So she would actually wake up and get out of bed and want to talk about it with me."
She went to the polls with him on primary day, even as it was clear she would soon die. “So many people walked by who knew her in my district, and were shocked when she was telling them, ‘I’m leaving.’ And they’re like, ‘Going where?’ And she’s like, ‘Over the rainbow,’” Cina recalled.
Advocates who backed the state’s end-of-life law said it was important to give terminally ill Vermonters a choice about when and how they die.
In her final days, Wadley-Bailey threw a party. Cina, who works as a DJ when he’s not in the Statehouse, said he and DJ Craig Mitchell played music for an hour outside their ailing friend’s house.
“She had her different friends sing and dance and do different poems, and then we played Patti LaBelle [singing] 'Over the Rainbow,' and her family walked her in as she waved goodbye to everyone,” Cina said. “And that was her last public appearance.”
Cina said Wadley-Bailey died the next day, surrounded by her “chosen family.”
He said he knew the song would be right for Friday morning’s remembrance. Mitchell was slated to sing, but he was injured in an accident and had to cancel. Cina said he quickly thought of Morris.
He said he considers Morris a friend, and knew she was a good singer. But Cina thought she would make a fitting vocalist for the tribute for other reasons too.
“She’s an African American woman who’s serving in the legislature, and I know that for Paij, that’s huge — to see another woman of color in a leadership position,” Cina said. “Her whole life, she fought for that. She fought so that other people of color and other queer people could gain positions of power and have a seat at the table."
Morris said Friday’s remembrance was more emotional than she expected. She
had never met Wadley-Bailey. But before stepping up to the podium to sing, Morris spoke with some of Wadley-Bailey’s closest friends.
“It was so beautiful to be able to hear them express this love for her," said Morris. "That’s what you would look for your friends and family to do; that’s the kind of legacy that you want to leave.”
"So when I came up there to begin, in my mind, I said, This will be fine! It’s like Lady Gaga singing the national anthem," she said. "And I found myself really overcome by emotion, by the beauty of everything that I’d experienced prior to that."