Widowed father writes book on ‘Finding Good’ in tragedy

Pam Kragen
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Before she died of cancer two years ago, 29-year-old Sarah Stone made her husband promise her three things: to continue doing good things in the world, to take care of their four young children and to find love again.

Check, check and check.

This summer, U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Johnathon Stone, 32, self-published a short book called “Finding Good,” which chronicles how he found and lost his soulmate and made it through. It ends with a 30-page, self-help journal where readers can use his daily motivational tools to find their own good.

That phrase is the motto for his family, which he calls “Team Stone.” It involves finding something good on even the worst day.

“Finding good is my mission statement,” he said. “I want to spread as much love and positivity as I can in a world right now that’s full of a lot of hate and negativity.”

In the book, which lists Sarah as co-author, Stone writes about how he and his children — 11-year-old twins Alyssa and Allison, 9-year-old Madelynn and 5-year-old Jackson — have worked to overcome their grief and are moving forward with their lives. What it doesn’t mention is Stone’s recent fulfillment of promise No. 3.

Last spring, he became engaged to Wendy Maze, a single mom and real estate agent who he met last year. Maze happens to share Sarah’s birthday, which Stone says isn’t a coincidence. For him, it’s a sign that Sarah had a hand in bringing them together.

“Wendy is very similar to Sarah with her big heart,” Stone said. “I feel blessed to have found two soulmates. Considering all the bad that has happened, I honestly feel pretty lucky.”

One friend who’s not surprised at Stone’s sunny outlook is Jeff Wiemann, who helped the Stones foster, and later adopt, Jackson through the organization he runs, the Angels Foster Family Network.

“Johnny has a remarkable ability to focus on what is positive and redeeming in all of life’s experiences and I admire his generosity in wanting to share this with others,” Wiemann said. “I’m certain there will be more books to follow because Johnny has seen a lot and can offer great insight about how to live life to its fullest.”

The Stones met at a pool party in 2003 in their small town of Clinton, Illinois. It wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, they didn’t like each other at all until a chance meeting a year later led to a friendship that grew into love as they wrote letters back and forth. After he finished Navy boot camp in 2005, they married and moved to San Diego, his first duty station.

The book follows the happy couple as they struggled to make ends meet while they grew from a family of two to four over the next eight years. Because Sarah had grown up with three adopted siblings, she signed them up to serve as foster parents. In April 2013, they took in a newborn boy who was on the autism spectrum and could not speak. When the boy’s mother passed away from an overdose in 2015, the Stones adopted him and named him Jackson.

That same year, Stone shipped out to sea on the USS Essex. When he returned five months later, he barely recognized his wife, who had become ill during his absence from a mysterious illness later diagnosed as appendix cancer.

By June 2016, Sarah was losing her battle and was in constant pain. That was when she secretly wrote her husband a “passdown” — a list of instructions to be read after she was gone. She hid the letter in a nightstand and only told him about it months later, on her deathbed at a local hospital.

That note, which he opened the evening after his wife’s death on Nov. 1, 2016, is printed in the first chapter of the book and a portion of it is on her tombstone. It reads, in part: “I want it emphasized that I loved life and was passionate about my children; that I loved fiercely and was blessed to have married my best friend at such a young age.”

Stone said surviving her death, with the help of grief counseling, was the hardest experience of his and his children’s lives. With the support of neighbors in the military housing community he calls “the village,” he got help with child-care, the Navy granted him an extended shore leave and he taught himself to cook family meals from YouTube videos.

In spring 2017, a friend encouraged Stone to attend a Tony Robbins leadership conference in Los Angeles to help him figure out how to fulfill his promise to Sarah to do good in the world. He couldn’t afford the $2,000 tuition, but Robbins heard his story and waived the fee.

At the conference, Robbins encouraged participants to make a three-minute pitch to a stranger on something they felt passionate about. Stone turned to the man next to him and pitched the book idea that he’d been kicking around for months. By the end of his spiel for “Finding Good,” Stone said the man was in tears. As he told and retold the story at the conference over the next few days, crowds began to grow around him and offer him encouragement.

“I realized it doesn’t matter what you do in life. We’re all human. We all have a story. It’s my duty to tell mine,” he said. “I went home and the first thing I did was start writing.”

Every night after putting the children to bed, Stone said he would work on the book for 30 minutes to two hours. The opening chapter about Sarah’s death was the hardest to write. Telling their love story flowed easily. He reserved the last section of the book for the self-help section, titled “30 Days to Find Your Good.”

Each page has a motivational thought and a question followed by a journal section for writing. Stone drew these thoughts and questions from the daily “minute of inspiration” videos he posts on his Facebook page. So far, he’s posted nearly 260 videos.

Last year, he posted one of these videos on a Facebook group page for people who had met while attending the Robbins conference. The video was about parenting challenges and it struck a chord with another conference attendee, Maze.

They started exchanging emails about the joys and hardships of single parenting — she has two daughters, ages 4 and 16 — and they bonded through the written word, just as Stone had with his first wife. They plan to marry in 2019.

“We’re now just this big happy blended family navigating life one day at a time,” he said.

The twins recently started middle school and are getting good grades. Madelynn has begun taking part in her father’s video updates. And Jackson is now training with a touch-assisted voice device that allows him to express his needs.

Because Stone is expected to return to sea duty in a few years, he has decided to retire from the Navy rather than leave his family alone again for an extended time. He plans to get a real estate license, is working on his certification to become a life coach and plans to do more public speaking.

Where it goes from here, he’s not sure, but he knows he’s on the right path.

“I can feel in my heart that I’m destined for something bigger that involves helping others,” he said.